Saturday, August 18, 2018

Just Like Everything Else BUT: Manga Reviews

Over the years, I've purchased manga where the plot and characters seemed so remarkably like other things I already owned, I "paid them forward" (literally, since I "sell" to Bullmoose for shopping dollars).

On occasion, I have purchased manga that were right on the edge. My reaction was, Hmmm, I've read this before; HOWEVER . . .

What creates the "however"?

Intriguing Secrets by Rize Shinba appears on the surface to be like every other story-about-teens-falling-in-love-in-high-school-by-joining-or-skipping-clubs.

If you've read Only the Ring Finger Knows, haven't you more or less conquered that entire genre?

Intriguing Secrets stood out for me for good character development, decent art, but mostly for the lack of melodrama.

Sure there's melodrama, but the melodrama is confined to ordinary human-being melodrama. Cut by Toko Kawai, which I also own, is Melodrama with a capital M: dead parents, crazy parents, abusive parents. It's John Hughes on steroids (and quite good, actually).

Intriguing Secrets is impressive precisely because it isn't like that. The tone is quiet, more Only Yesterday than Voices of a Distant Star (both also very good).

And the denouement, in which the art is actually paid off, is quite clever.

Your Love Sickness by Hayate Kuku--okay, I had to wait so long for it to become available on Amazon at a normal, non-"collectible" price, I'm never letting it out of my hands.

Has the animal/spirits/human forms/temple milieu been done before?


In this case, the tongue-in-cheek art makes the volume a keeper.

So that's that.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Absolute Equals: Two Appealing M/M Couples

One of my favorite Bones-Booth moments is when Sweets
insists that they do an outside exercise together. Bones and
Booth behave like mature equals, more than Sweets and his girl.
Many romances employ rescue missions whereby one character decides to rescue/save another. They are about what one character can do for the other.

I'm not necessarily opposed to these plots, so long as I am left believing that the relationship is reasonably functional. Everybody got what they signed up for.

However, I admit, I absolutely adore those relationships where I believe that the relationship is equal, that the oddities of each partner have been taken into account and dismissed or fully accepted, that the author has in fact achieved a 50/50 balance (which is difficult in fiction and in real life):

Possible cover from Goodreads

From KJ Charles's Seditious Affair, Dominic and Silas are equals despite the differences in background, education, and money. They both adore books. They both admire each other's honesty and goodwill, even if they utterly disagree over the other man's politics. And it all comes down to their ability to stand outside themselves objectively and accept the other person as he is.

Dominic likes to be dominated during sex. If Silas was an even slightly different personality, this aspect of their relationship would also be their downfall. If, for instance, Silas allowed politics to bleed over into the sexual arena, if he used dominance to bully, if he perceived Dominic's needs not as an individual quirk but as an opportunity to mock and deride, the relationship would falter and die within a few months. Silas would be the opposing side to Lord Richard's overly patronizing coin (Lord Richard is a good, flawed character).

Instead, to Lord Richard, Silas barks, "I said, you won't [make Dominic behave]. You've hag-ridden [him] for fifteen years, and I won't have you giving him another dose of what's wrong with him. It's not his doing I'm mixed up in this [seditious affair], and you, friend, you aren't making me into a stick to beat him with because you don't like his ways."

He defends Dominic. Dominic defends him. In the end, Silas will get his bookstore back. And he'll honor the person loaning him the money. And they will have the companionship they both desire.

The younger versions.

Many of L.A. Witt's Anchor Point novels revolve around military men with problems: PTSD, physical ailments, alcoholism, etc. Generally speaking, I appreciate how she often solves the issues without solving them. That is, the couple learns to deal--the issues don't vanish.

Diego and Mark have their issues. What I liked about Once Burned specifically was how willing Diego and Mark were to allow the other person to be different. Diego is not religious; Mark is. Diego is not military anymore (against his wishes); Mark is. Good grief, they even like different sports teams!

The issue at the end is not Hey, can you deal with my crap? The issue at the end, interestingly enough, is forgiveness, not of each other but of the past. Crappy things happened to me. Am I going to let that control my relationship with you? 

Individually, they both decide, No. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

Will That Particular Dysfunction Spoil the Relationship?

At the end of a romance, the reader is left to ponder, Okay, so will this relationship continue to work?

Here are two fictional relationships, with dysfunctions, that I hope will continue to work. However, I worry more about the first than the second, and the reason is the dysfunction under examination.

To start, dysfunctions are a given in romances (as they are, one could argue, in life--but that's a post for another time). After all, if the characters have nothing to overcome/contend with/worry about, then, Where's the plot? Sure, outsiders can cause problems, but they can only cause so many problems before the characters' issues come into play.

If Mulder is perfectly well-balanced, then what would Scully roll her eyes at?

1. Kelly and Walter from Love Lessons by Heidi Cullinan

I don't worry about these characters!
I am rapidly becoming a Heidi Cullinan fan. I like the true diversity employed in her books, not the nominal diversity that decides who the "right/good" people are.

I worry about Kelly and Walter from Love Lessons, however, and I worry about them due to Walter's tendency to use money to buy affection.

Actually, Walter uses money to show affection when other approaches fail--so there is hope for him. Unfortunately, it is a very fine line. I have witnessed upfront the problems that using money to buy affection can cause: (a) the person using money to buy affection (the giver) does so because the giver feels unlovable; (b) the receivers of the money and the gifts either have to assure the giver, Please, stop, we love you no matter what, or give up and accept the gifts graciously.

Unfortunately, constantly assuring and reassuring the giver is exhausting and doesn't always work, so (c) the receivers give up and accept the gifts graciously, which sounds nice but doing so establishes a power imbalance whereby the giver is being taken advantage of and the receivers are being treated like affection prostitutes.

Kelly does shower Walter with affection and seems to know how to handle his bursts of neediness (and has the confidence to establish boundaries). But using money in this way is addictive. I worry that Walter won't be able to stop; Kelly will eventually find himself suffocating under a sense of "I bought you/you owe me," however unintentional.

2. Jake and Andy from Eli Easton's Five Dares

Jake and Andy remind me of Gus and Sean
Eli Easton is one of my favorite writers (and yes, I do wish she would write another Mad Creek book!).

I was worried at the beginning of Five Dares, which revolves on dares between two friends-lovers. People like Andy who take dangerous and unnecessary risks often also have a death wish.

However, it became clear within a few chapters that Andy's dares were (1) almost always staged; (2) done more for the applause/reaction than the adrenaline rush--getting the crowd hyped up is as big a part, if not bigger, than the risk itself; (3) Andy has a single goal in mind; (4) Andy walks away from the most risky self-dare, standing drunk on the edge of the dormitory--that is, he can talk himself down (Jake helps but ultimately, the decision is Andy's).

The dare at the end is pure showmanship, a wild example of Andy's joie de vivre. And it's all for Jake's benefit. I'm not worried that Andy will rush off on his own and do something stupid and life-threatening.

Both books are well-written. All characters are distinct and well-established. Both relationships are believable. The (slight) difference: dysfunctions that demand other people's continual reassurance are far more difficult to resolve that dysfunctions that lie within a person's control and purview.

Everybody, ultimately, has to fight their own battles. We readers need to see the fight (and hopefully, some wins).

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Fantasy of No Control

Lately, I've been reading a large percentage of M/M romances. However, my personal advertisements (suggestions from Amazon that come up in my Cart)--which usually include manga, mysteries, and history books--began to suggest traditional romances (M/F).

I do read traditional romances, but I couldn't figure out what was triggering the suggestions. 

Until I realized--it was the MPreg books.

If one wants to pinpoint M/M romances where the characters might as well be M/F, MPreg would be it.

It isn't, as far I can tell, the pregnancy itself that makes the books so utterly traditional. Rather, the MPreg books I sampled reflect a particular type of traditional romance, a type that frankly I don't usually read.

The omega--pregnant male or, let's face it, female character--raises interesting issues about the biological reality of pregnancy. What irks me personally, however, is the thread of passivity that runs through the narratives.

These are old-fashioned Harlequins at their best in which the female character is sweep away by any of the following:
(1) A domineering male.
(2) A wealthy domineering male.
(3) A wealthy domineering male who brings out her wild side.
(4) A wealthy domineering male who brings out her wild side and doesn't leave when she gets pregnant.
It's the kind of thing that makes me want to read a book about a woman who was abandoned by the father of her child and had to go on welfare--and I don't even like those kinds of books.

I am a huge fan of people being able to indulge their fantasies in constructive, non-hedonistic ways; hey, I'm a big fan of not undermining civilization or the moral coding that helps it along so yay for conservative values plus tolerance and respect for mutual rights. But I admit to being more bemused by this fantasy than not (despite being a woman who loves romances).

I also must admit that this fantasy is incredibly powerful.

It is not so much about submission. The female companions who get overwhelmed by these wealthy, rich, powerful, utterly committed men (who don't bat at an eye at an unexpected pregnancy) are often quite outspoken. Their arguments and claims of independence are rather tokenish, rarely seeming to end in the women actually walking away from the situation. But the men will often listen. And change. Sort of.

So submission isn't the name of the game. The name of the game, I suggest, is not having to take control in the first place.

That may seem like an odd fantasy for women since supposedly they have less control than men, but the type of control I'm talking about is the type of control a person has to take when they have fewer options, not many. As a person who lives mostly from paycheck to paycheck (with a little extra for savings), I have to control my spending. In my current situation, I can relax to a degree but in past years, I had to be far more careful, counting dollars to decide whether or not I could afford meat for dinner and which bills I would pay first. 

Taking control in these ways is part of adulthood. But the kind of constant control practiced by women--"I better watch my habits/behavior/surroundings because I don't want to get pregnant or end up in a dangerous situation late at night in a bar"--can be a relief to shed.

In fiction, of course. In reality, it would be really stupid. And not all women go for it, even in fiction. I prefer romances which are about bargaining with control: what's the compromise? But I can't deny that the fantasy of someone swooping in to pay off my student loan isn't a nice one.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Traditionalism of MPreg

One of the stranger romance sub-genres out there is MPreg, which refers to Male Pregnancy.

What makes it strange is not the world-building or the sci-fi nature of the pregnancy. What makes it strange is how entirely traditional, even 1950s traditional, it can be.

The entire sub-genre backs up my contention from an earlier Why Yaoi post:
The lack of pushy gender roles is one reason I can never be entirely snippy about those readers who like yaoi series with androgynous boys. For all I know, they turned to yaoi because they got tired of being told that they shouldn't be reading romance novels where girly girls get looked after by manly men. Yaoi is an escape not only from confining conservative roles but from pressuring progressive ones.
MPreg essentially puts babies and family first, to the point where "barefoot and pregnant" is not an unlikely scenario.

In one MPreg universe, the men who can become pregnant (omegas) also have to deal with prejudice, some of which I discuss here. They fight for the right to get degrees and have jobs and marry whomever they wish.

Ultimately, however, it's all about that baby. If this emphasis on child-rearing showed up in traditional romance, it would quite honestly be heavily criticized for "holding women back" or "confining them to feminine roles." As a sub-genre, I don't think anybody knows what to do with it. (Like most Americans don't know what to do with yaoi.)

I am an advocate of people being able to make of fiction what they will. That is, I think it is entirely acceptable for women and men to read MPreg romances for the sake of the classic, traditional motifs that put babies and family at the forefront of the human experience.

Having said that, after reading about eight of these novels, I have to admit the tropes are a little ham-handed.

So here is my suggestion for a MPreg novel. Has it been done before? Probably. But at least it doesn't include some of the tiresome tropes of the eight prior novels:
Simon is the alpha, the male who can impregnate. And he doesn't know it. Unlike nearly every other alpha in the books that I've read, he is not well-off, his family is not well-off, and nobody in his vicinity is a power-broker. He is a small-town guy who knows about alphas and omegas from the news but has very little experience with that world directly. "Coming out" was a huge deal for him and frankly traumatizing enough.

Rafe is the omega and unlike in every book I've read, he comes from a loving, supportive wealthy family. His fathers have a semi-arranged marriage where the marriage was arranged, but they had to sign off on it. It proved to be very happy (unlike in every book that I've read). Rafe has alpha and omega siblings and everybody gets along.

The parents settled money on each of their children at birth, so Rafe has his own income. He uses it to fund various educational programs, including an archaeological dig. He is not a dilettante; running charities may sound easy, but if a person actually takes a hands-on approach, it can be extremely time-consuming.

Rafe's parents suggest an arranged marriage for him, and he claims he isn't adverse (unlike every omega in every book I've read who feels personally attacked by the idea). In truth, in his heart of hearts, Rafe would love to have an ordinary gay relationship with someone--like Buffy wants to be an ordinary girl--but he knows how unlikely that is, so, eh, whatever.

The parents interview the prospective groom, Todd. Todd comes across as a decent human being (unlike every arranged-marriage groom in every book I've read). However, Rafe has to sign off on the agreement, so the prospective groom--Todd--goes out the archaeological dig that Rafe is funding and where Simon is working. Rafe is unaware, until Todd shows up, that his dads already put the arranged marriage into motion.

Simon and Rafe have started dating, which thrills Rafe since Simon doesn't realize that the extra pull he feels to Rafe is due to him, Simon, being an alpha. Rafe knows what is going on but doesn't tell Simon because he loves being in an "ordinary" relationship.

Seeing Simon and Rafe together does not send Todd into a jealous tailspin (unlike in every book I've read). But it does concern him. Todd's arranged marriage with Rafe is his last chance to live the jet-setting lifestyle that he has gotten used to. His family is tired of his dilettante ways. Either someone else takes care of Todd, or he gets a job.

It isn't that Todd is an alcoholic or a druggie or even promiscuous, all of which the fathers would have found out in their background check. It is that he adores being a sophisticated man of the world who jets around to different "events": skiing in the Alps in the winter; summering in the Hamptons, etc.

He doesn't understand that Rafe actually works; he thinks Rafe is like him life-style-wise. He mistakenly assumes that "philanthropy" is this cute thing that Rafe does between jet-setting, not something that actually involves Rafe reviewing proposals, checking budgets, and cutting off funds when necessary.

Consequently, Todd convinces himself NOT that he has "rights" to Rafe (like every other alpha in every book I've read) but, rather more problematically, that Simon isn't good enough for Rafe. At the core of this belief is a deep fear on Todd's part that without a wealthy marriage, he'll have to get a "job," and he has absolutely no idea what he would do--he probably would be able to find a decent enjoyable job on the board of something or other, but the whole idea is new and unknown, so it terrifies him.

Todd's sense that Simon is no good for Rafe increases when Rafe gets pregnant (which does happen, despite protection, in every book I've read--apparently, birth control in these alternate universes is sue-ably ineffective). Simon has no idea, and Rafe doesn't tell him. Todd understandably sees all this as irresponsible.

Eventually, Todd takes Simon out to the island or the dig or the desert or somewhere away from camp and confronts Simon with Rafe's pregnancy. Flummoxed Simon denies it, which justifies Todd in his own mind to be anti-Simon; he lashes out. During their fight, Simon falls. Todd leaves him, driving the jeep back to camp. Todd is a villain but he is the type of villain who convinces himself that not doing anything is not the same as actually doing something. "I didn't hurt Simon. It's his fault he fell. What can I do about it? Nobody will be able to get him out of that ravine anyway."

Todd is bad but not wholly evil. He feels terrible guilt and takes himself off to town for the day. So Rafe can't ask Todd anything when he realizes Simon is missing.

Instead Rafe realizes that to find Simon he will have to rely on his omega senses, enhanced due to the baby (this is in many of the books). He will have to tap into the part of him that is physically drawn to "his" alpha, not just his boyfriend. It's his internal climax, a block that he has to overcome. And he does it, and he finds Simon.

And Simon finally accepts the reality of a pregnant boyfriend (which happens in every
book) and Rafe and Simon get married (which happens in every book). And the baby is healthy (which happens in every book). And everybody is thrilled (which sometimes happens in every book).
Katherine Woodbury

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Hot Protagonists: How Shallow Is It to Read About Them?

Describing the "hot" protagonists is a motif in romance novels. Some readers like it--that's one reason they read romances.

Some readers dislike it--why does everyone have to be so gorgeous?

Here are three points:

1. Romances are fantasies.

I am not a fan of the Twilight series, books or movies. I find it boring. However, when the first book became popular, I got annoyed at the accompanying hysteria. Far too many people were dumping on the Twilight series for "making" young girls care only about (hot) guys and marriage, not college and careers.

Apparently, none of these hysterical people remembered being teenagers. I read tons of romances when I was a teen. I also read Lord Jim and Cancer Ward (voluntarily) as well as  Shakespeare. Frankly, I was better read--and my friends who loaned me romance novels were better read--than my intellectual friends who insisted on sticking to stuff like Thoreau and discussing Ayn Rand.

So I greatly admire Inside Out for its "tragic vampire romance island" and the melodramatic imaginary boyfriend. Because that's reality: teenage girls like thinking and talking and fantasying about dating.

Get over it.

2. Many times, the "hot-ness" is how protagonists describe each other, not necessarily how they appear to other characters.

In Change of Address by Jordan Brock, the protagonist Josh is obviously, well, Sam (Sean Astin) from The Lord of the Rings.

Okay, not obviously, but his family's business is Bagel End. Plus Josh is blond with shaggy curls, stocky, and winsome. He perceives himself as entirely ordinary and not exactly svelte.

His tall, svelte lover, Michael, sees him from the beginning as attractive and charming.

This is less hopeful thinking than it sounds. Yes, the human brain is wired to find certain looks attractive, but the human brain is also wired to be idiosyncratic about what it finds attractive. I can accept, intellectually, that David James Elliot is a very handsome guy, but it's Peter Falk who makes me go weak at the knees.

And, yes, okay, Sean Astin is adorable.

3. Descriptions in romance books often-times appear to be publisher requirements.

Granted, Simon Baker is very handsome.
One of my favorite traditional romances is Romancing Mr. Bridgerton by Julia Quinn, in large part because it discusses writing. The main male character, Colin, is described as tall, dark-haired, etc. etc. He is slightly shorter than his tall, dark-haired brothers, but still well within the Colin Firth/Darcy wheelhouse.

Except . . . I have read the book about four times now, and every time I forget the description by the time I'm a third of the way through. It's kind of a throw-away description (The Bridgerton brothers are all so handsome!). No matter how he is described initially, I see Colin constantly and consistently as Simon Baker. More Bingley than Darcy. More James Roday than anybody from James Bond.

The author doesn't go out of her way to enforce her own description, so after read-through #2, I began to wonder how much it really mattered.

I've encountered this experience elsewhere--to the point where I often think that the writer doesn't really care about looks or has his/her own ideas about them; the description is for the cover, and sometimes, publishers get even that wrong

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

It's Not About Love--It's About the Skill Set

Non-ironic Romeo & Juliet tales like to emphasize the glory of love at all costs. "All that matters is our affection for one another!" 

One of my recent romance reads employed this approach. Despite the protagonists being respectively 20 and 24ish years old, the text argued that they would be able to make a go of it. Hey, sometimes a person has to date a lot to find that one and only. Sometimes the one and only is right there when one goes looking.

I don't debate the last sentence. What I debate is the ability of the 20 and 24-year-old in this case to make the relationship work, not because people that young can't but because the 20-year-old has zero experience taking care of anything any more difficult than a goldfish. (Seriously. It's implied that the youthful protagonist never even babysat the 2-year-old sister.)

The 20-year-old will move from the parents' home, where college is paid for, to the lover's home where presumably the 20-year-old will sit around the apartment all day. No job. No online job (no freelance work). No experience cooking. No experience shopping. No experience paying bills. No experience (as far as I could tell) even cleaning or doing laundry.

One may note that I haven't divulged the gender of the 20-year-old (unless one peeked at the link). That's because I don't think it matters. Lack of real-world experience is lack of real-world experience. And doesn't bode well for the health of the future relationship.

The point here is the same point that Foreman (Omar Epps) makes to Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) in an early season of House. It is possibly one of the most insightful statements ever made on television and worthy of House himself, though delivered in a far less caustic manner.

Cameron married in college to a man already dying from cancer. This gives her a kind of waif-like aura of tragedy (and entirely fits her tendency to fall hopelessly in love with lost causes, which House figures out in about three seconds flat). She sacrificed all for love! It was all about the love! It was Romeo & Juliet--he was fated to die!

Foreman kindly yet inexorably contests Cameron's right to some kind of profound angst. The real trial, to Foreman, is not marrying a man fated to die but marrying someone and staying committed and faithful to that someone for many years:
Foreman: You married a dying man. You thought six months, a year, it'll be tough. But then I'll recover and I'll have the rest of my life. It's like willy-nilly getting the flu or joining the Peace Corps. Short term.
Cameron: Wow, you nailed it. It's basically like a wasted weekend.
Foreman: The sacrifices you made were huge. But they were at the height of your love for him. Commitment is only commitment because it has no expiration date. You stand next to someone and watch them floss for 30 years like my parents have, then ask for sacrifices. That's how you know the real thing. Cameron, I wasn't criticizing you. People who avoid commitment are people who know what a big thing it is.
The sacrifices Foreman references may not directly entail things like "How do we spend the bonus money I got from work?" or "What exactly are going to be the sleeping arrangements when your parents come to visit?" or "If I do go back to school, will you be able to pick up the financial slack?" or "Who is going to do the laundry if we both work 60 hours a week?" but they often fall into that category.

Maybe the 20-year-old will figure it out. And maybe the 24-year-old, who has a far greater skill set, will be patient. But there's a reason that businesses like to hire people with experience and/or at least a college degree. It isn't that prior experience or a college degree guarantee that the new employee won't have to make adjustments, get more training, learn the ropes. It's that there is a difference between hiring someone who already knows how to focus/work and hiring someone who has to be trained how to work.

Here's what the business is asking itself: Why should we be the suckers that have to turn this person into an adult? 

It's a good idea for people to ask that question before marriage rather than after. Because it will get asked eventually, no matter what anybody thinks about the power of love.