One of the best pleasures in life is curling up with a good book. I love to read just about anything, but some of my favorite reading content comes in the form of mass market romance novels. I know what you’re thinking. You mean those cheezy paperbacks from the grocery store that have a shirtless muscle-head and a fawning woman on them? Well, essentially yes, and I can tell you why. They are fun and easy to read and they offer an amusing escape from reality for a little while. Who doesn’t love to be swept away by a good love story?
With all the changes going on in the world, it has prompted me to take a closer look at the content I consume and who is generating that content. When I look at romance novels, I see a traditionally white female cisgender space, which is no accident. These books have always been marketed to that specific audience, and the statistics can prove it. Eighty-four percent of romance readers identify as female, mostly between the ages of eighteen to fifty-four. Eighty-one percent of readers are white.
The romance novel industry is a billion dollar industry, making up twenty-nine percent of the fiction market. People may laugh off romance novels as trashy or worthless, but there is serious money to be made in the genre.
With the popularity of self publishing, consumers have more agency than ever in deciding what types of content they wish to see. It has never been easier for authors of all kinds to put their work out in the world to be found by like-minded people craving the types of content they are creating. This is the time that we need to make room for other points of view. The content is out there, and we need to find it and support it.
With this idea in mind, and a nudge in the right direction from one of my current favorite romance authors, I decided to indulge in something new and different.
I’m a person who likes to start at the beginning, Unmasked Heart was a natural starting point for me. Riley self-published the book in 2015, and it is the first novel in her Challenge of the Souls series. Like many people, I’m usually strapped for time, so I chose to purchase this book from Audible so I could listen to it while doing chores.
Synopsis (with only a few spoilers)
Gaia Telfair is a quiet, unassuming young lady who has always felt like an outsider in her family. She is treated differently by her father and feels that she looks nothing like her siblings. One day, her father reveals to her, in a rather cruel way, that Gaia is the product of an affair her mother had with a African man who was getting an education in England. Having been raised to fit in with “good English society,” Gaia is shocked by the revelation. She struggles with her new identity, and is desperate to find a place where she can be happy and really belong.
William St. Landon, The Duke of Cheshire and a widower with a young special needs daughter, runs to his family’s country estate to escape a looming scandal. He is being blackmailed over his late wife’s infidelity, and he is being pressured back into marriage by his annoyingly persistent cousin. All William wants is what is best for his mute daughter. He hears through the locals that Miss Telfair is gifted with special needs children, having instructed her autistic little brother with great success, and he is determined to have her teach his daughter.
William begins an unlikely friendship with Gaia, and eventually proposes a marriage of convenience. Will Gaia tell William about the circumstances of her birth? Can William uncover his blackmailer? I’m not gonna ruin it for you! You’ll need to read the book yourself!
My Take on the Book
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Riley does a great job of painting a Brontë-esque portrait of Regency Era British society, and she doesn’t shy away from topics such as slavery, racism, and how special needs children were treated at the time. I found the take refreshing and honest, which is something we need right now. I’m tired of books that don’t paint an accurate picture of the past, and this one gets a big thumbs up from me.
The characters are endearing and believable in their motivations. The pacing was decent and the plot was full of action. Honestly, I think that the biggest thing I disliked about the book didn’t even have anything to do with the actual content. I got the audiobook, and I have to say that the narrator was awful. I kept getting hung up on the fact that she constantly pronounced the word mulatto as mew-LAtto, and it was distracting. The audio quality was also sub-par. This is currently Riley’s only work to be available on audiobook, and I sincerely hope that any other works made into audiobooks can get a little more love.
I will definitely be reading more of Riley’s books. Much of her content is available on Amazon Kindle, either for free or for less than a dollar. I find that a small price to pay to support a BIPOC author that I enjoy. These stories deserve to be told. I’m willing to put my money where my mouth (or keyboard) is and show the romance novel industry that there is a desire for diverse content.
Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemone folds readers into a world of magic, flowers, romance, and danger. First, I would like to acknowledge this beautiful cover, the one pictured here is an OwlCrate exclusive cover, but the version you can dig up in bookstores is also beautiful. I will not hold back on gardening puns, and I will not apologize! I was worried the story wouldn’t live up the magic of this cover, but thankfully it did. With notes of Practical Magic and Chocolat, we’re pulled into a world with five female cousins, and three generations of mothers, grandmothers, great aunts, and aunts-all who can grow hundreds of thousands of flowers based on their namesake. Which sounds fantastic and they probably all smell really good. But there’s a catch, a few catches actually- if they ever try to leave their home, La Padera, they will die. And if they love a man hard enough, he will eventually disappear. This becomes a problem when all five cousins, fall in love with a girl. What will happen to her? And what of the mysterious boy who appeared in La Padera with no memory of his perhaps sinful past? As a life-long reader of mysteries, I am hard to surprise, but Wild Beauty surprised me, IN THE BEST WAY. Lush writing and full of metaphors and magic and little painted wooden horses.
I have been more than a little bit obsessed with romance novels, erotica, and romantic fanfiction for most of my life. It started with sneakily checking out books from the library and skim-reading to get to the “good parts,” then moved on to scouring Archive of Our Own, Fanfiction.net, and other glorious sites for all of my slash fic needs, no matter how niche (Draco Malfoy and Blaise Zabini, anyone?), and now, at long last, I can finally say that I am a proud sex nerd and devourer of all things romance and sexuality.
Given this extensive history, I think it’s safe to say that I couldn’t have been more excited to sit in on this year’s GeekGirlCon panel A Geek Girl’s Right to Erotica. This panel was the first live episode of the certifiably awesome Podice Rippers podcast, hosted by Natalie Warner and Lainey Seaton. When not podcasting “at length and girth” about romance novels, Natalie and Lainey are a cyber-security technical writer and an account manager, respectively. Together, they host a podcast that is an incredibly funny and thoroughly geeky exploration of all things romance, smut, and erotica.
Image Description: podcast hosts and panelists Natalie Warner and Lainey Seaton sitting at their panel table at GeekGirlCon ’17. Source: Twitter
“I belong in the refrigerator. Because the truth is, I’m just food for a superhero. He’ll eat up my death and get the energy he needs to become a legend.”
–– The Refrigerator Chronicles, pg. 144
If you’re a woman, girl, or other gender-marginalized person who loves comics, you’ve probably heard of “fridging.” Also known as being “refrigerated,” or “women in refrigerators,” fridging is a term coined in 1999 by comic writer Gail Simone, after reading a Green Lantern comic in which Kyle Raynor comes home to find his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, killed and stuffed into a refrigerator. Since then, the term has spawned a website cataloguing the many ways in which women in comics have so often been treated as disposable plot devices within the broader narratives of male protagonists. Too often the wives and girlfriends of comic heroes, as well as other women comic book characters, are abused, injured, disempowered, or killed in order to provide a catalyst for the heroic actions of their male counterparts.
Drawing on this trope’s long and complicated history––as well as the format and mission of the Eve Ensler-created Vagina Monologues––prolific author and comic book fan Cathrynne M. Valente’s most recent book, The Refrigerator Monologues, began with her own Gail Simone-like call to action. As she describes in an article for The Mary Sue, after Valente saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2, she left the theater in tears, enraged and disappointed by the filmmakers’ treatment of Gwen Stacy. When Valente’s partner told her that, as much as they both might want to, there was nothing they could do to fix Gwen Stacy’s death because “‘she was always going to die. She always dies. It’s kind of a thing,’” Valente responded with redoubled enthusiasm to directly address that very inevitability.
“On Monday, I am Julia Ash. I dye my hair cranberry red and live in a trendy suburb with three cats, two teakettles, and one first edition Jane Eyre on which I have never once spilled ramen broth.
On Tuesday, I eat a star.”
–– The Refrigerator Chronicles, pg. 25
What results is a series of linked, monologic short stories, each centered around a different member of the Hell Hath Club, a tightknit group of “fridged” badasses, relegated to the monotonous obscurity of the underworld while their husbands and boyfriends heedlessly continue their above-ground heroics. Illustrated by amazing artist Annie Wu, the stories are by turns tragic and hilarious, snarky and earnest. Those who are familiar with comics will likely be able to place the inspiration behind Valente’s characters, and part of the fun is identifying the incredibly creative ways that Valente updates the stories of Jean Grey, Gwen Stacy, Alexandra DeWitt, Harley Quinn, and others. By drawing on familiar themes––updated and embellished by propulsive, acrobatic prose and galvanizing anger––Valente is able to honor the importance of comic books while simultaneously drawing attention to the very tropes that can hinder such pure enjoyment for us comics fans who aren’t cis white men.
At the same time, there are certainly limitations to what Valente is able to accomplish in The Refrigerator Monologues. The stories themselves––like those that inspired them––are, with few exceptions, heteronormative narratives involving white, cis men and women. Additionally, while Valente’s characters are given a voice and a spotlight through which to tell their own stories, the fact remains that they are still dead. United by shared experience and empowered by mutual storytelling, these powerful and complex women are not able to enact physical retribution on those who have hurt, oppressed, and used them.
Still, as someone who loves comics and graphic novels, I view Valente’s work as a celebration of the comic book genre precisely because it refuses to ignore the problematic tropes and themes so often contained within it. By putting a spotlight on abuse, misogyny, and the perceived disposability of certain bodies, The Refrigerator Monologues is a book that comes out of a deep love, addressing the anguish that results when that love is betrayed. As a nerd, that’s exactly the kind of representation that I’m looking for.
“The Hell Hath Club walks its newest member out into the Lethe Café, into music and moonlight and steaming cups of nothing that taste like remembering. Her frozen blue skin gleams like the bottles behind the bar. We help her into the booth, hold her hand, slip her a joke or two to make her smile.
What’s the difference between being dead and having a boyfriend? Death sticks around.”
The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee beautifully illustrates a twist to the historical friends-to-lovers romance. Our protagonist, Henry “Monty” Montague, is a roguish and charming, high-society English lad who is deeply in love with his best friend, Percy—whose gentle nature serves as a fantastic catalyst to Monty’s bravado. Monty’s stern sister, Felicity, also reluctantly tags along on their grand tour of Europe, and uses her book smarts and savage one-liners to survive everything from parties to pirates. Although Monty is thoughtless and selfish, it’s impossible not to love him. His voice and perspective are perfect for fans of British humor—dry and sarcastic but still ridiculously entertaining.
Owlcrate is monthly subscription box for Young Adult book lovers. Each OwlCrate box theme centers around a chosen book. Each book is a newly released Young Adult novel, and according to the creators, they will be releasing exclusive covers for the rest of the year. You also get a signed bookplate and a letter from the author with each book received. I’ve received Owlcrate boxes since, August 2016 and, I’ll be honest, I don’t always like the book. In fact, there’s maybe four so far I would have chosen for myself, but that’s the risk you take with subscription boxes. However, even if I don’t like the book, there’s usually something in the box that I do like. They also give peeks throughout the month on their Instagram of what will be in the next box so you can decide if you want it that month.
This month’s theme was MAKE IT OUT ALIVE, or as I like to call it, celebrating women who most definitely don’t need a man to survive. This box is a little different from other OwlCrates, as it contained two books, one that was released in the United States in January 2016 called New World Rising by Jennifer Wilson, and another that was released this month by Harperteen called The Sandcastle Empire by Kayla Olson. Both books feature seventeen-year-old protagonists who are trying to survive in a world that seems hell-bent on killing them. Although there are two books, you only receive the exclusive cover, book plate, and letter, from The Sandcastle Empire.
7 p.m. to 9 p.m. — Northwest Film Forum in Seattle’s Capitol HIll neighborhood
Ticket prices: Free for members of Three Dollar Bill Cinema, $5 for not-yet-members ($6.16 with fees)
Get ready to celebrate Valentine’s Day with this collection of short films from past screenings at TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival and Translations Film Festival! The event page lists 12 short films. Read them here.
All Geeks, All Games is an event developed by Mox Boarding House to celebrate and promote diversity and inclusiveness in the local gaming community. Everyone is welcome to come by and play board games, play Magic the Gathering, miniature gaming, and more! The event is completely Free!
6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Jan. 5 is opening night at Pioneer Square’s Gallery4Culture, but the exhibition runs through Jan. 26.
David Jaewon Oh’s Combatants captures the strength and honesty of women in combat sports. The sights and sounds of the often male-dominated gyms where they train come to life in this series of intimate photographic portraits that explore personal identity and gender roles.