Monday Musings: My Problem with Romance Novels

I’m a hypocrite. Or, maybe I’m just growing up.

Talk to me ten years ago and I would tell you that out of all genres of literature, romance was my least favorite. High school me liked the dark, pretentious, and overall tragic elements of media–the more twisted the better. Romance was fluff and cute. High school me couldn’t stand that unless someone dies at the end. Or if it was an anime. Clannad was one of my favorite shows but if you know anything about Clannad, you know it gets pretty tragic, pretty quickly.

Talk to me five years ago and I’ll freely admit that I have soft spot for Victorian novels with sweeping romances (Wuthering Heights comes to mind) and Young Adult literature where a central theme is finding out who you are and the blossoming of first loves. But in the same breath, I would tell you that adult romances just weren’t for me. Have you seen those ridiculous book covers? You know, the ones with well-oiled bare-chested men embracing swooning damsels whose collars were suggestively askewed. How could you take those books seriously? I’ve never read one but I know what you’re about (I say as I eye the bookshelf and point accusingly). I don’t mind if romance is an element of literature, I says, it just can’t be the main thing.

These observations were so…wrong. Yes, wrong! I was wrong! These last two or three years especially have had me looking for comfort in my media. I like a good challenging novel, a thoughtful artistic movie, but lately, I’ve been craving media kinder on my nerves. Something that I could enjoy without thinking about themes or the implication of a narrative in a larger cultural conversation. Something that would just make me feel good.

And do you know what I turned to?

I turned to romance novels.

I turned to media about two people who fall in love and, by golly, may even get a happy ending.

Rereading Lore Olympus has done more to improve my serotonin levels than anything else these last two weeks. In between violent deaths in the Jenna Moreci Savior Series, I was rooting for those crazy kids to fall in love. I picked up Beverly Jenkin’s Rebel and saw how intricate and sexy a historical romance could be. Right now I’m reading Red, White and Royal Blue and wondering how Alex and Henry will make their romance work being two very high-profile and highly visible bachelors in the realm of US politics and the British monarchy. It’s the food I need. It’s giving!

My assumption about romance books was wrong. Assuming that all romance novels were just two people making out for a book’s entirety was spectacularly narrow-minded. I’m ashamed to admit that. Even though I grew more open to other genres once I started working at my library, I never thought to read a romance until about a year ago. I still ran on the thought that romances just weren’t for me after not bothering to read them.

Are there any genres you eventually came around to after being a naysayer for years? Let’s discuss!

Short Fiction: Billie Jean Can Swing

Billie Jean let her feet tap, tap, tap to the rhythm of that rocking swing. With a holler, she hitched up her skirt and let the music have its way with her. She tapped, turned, and glided so smooth across the dance floor. She was the envy of all those who swung to that same beat.

I swallowed another pint of liquid courage and let the burn going down put some fire in my limbs.

I told the boys I’d join her on that dance floor today. I imagined I would come up on her so smooth and carry her off like the mac I thought I was. But Billie Jean ain’t no fool and she ain’t impressed so easy.

Several jive turkeys tried to strut up to her just to be shoved away by the power of those hips. Had the whole floor cackling and jonesing on those fools for love.

And here I am the biggest fool of all.

The sight of her ease on the dance floor cooled my resolve until I remembered that my mama didn’t raise no quitter. I take another swallow of fire but it goes down hard and makes me choke.

Old Sam behind the bar shook his head. “Take it easy, young blood.”

I waved pops off and turned around. Billie Jean was still cutting rags and rocking with the beat.

Now or never. Now or never.

I took my chance.

I hopped up to her with a twirl and a jig. In one deft motion in the knees, bowed and offered my hand.

She rolled her eyes and turned away.

But Mama ain’t raise no quitter.

I caught her elbow and rocked into her. Her eyebrow quirked as she called my bluff and leaned into me. I kept my feet in time with hers. Grabbed her hand and made her twirl with the swell of music.

The song ended and we were breathing hard, sweating, and staring at each other.

She smiled. “Not bad, country boy.”

So Currently…(6)

Reading….

I’ve been doing this more than anything this year. I’m challenging myself to read more genres and more widely.

To this end, I recently finished Rebel by Beverly Jenkins. It’s the first book in her Women Who Dare series and my first ever adult romance book. And…I kind of loved it. The book is seeped in the intricate world of Reconstruction era New Orleans with all its racial turbulence and hope for the future all the while showing a love story that I wholeheartedly rooted for. I loved Drake LeVeq with his passionate pirate blood and the hellion of a schoolteacher, Valinda Lacy. They have undeniable chemistry and I was also intrigued how their loved fit in with the historical setting.

Another little chapbook I finished recently was Elizabeth Acevedo’s Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths. I loved every book I’ve touched by this author and this one is no exception. The poetry and verse in this explore Latin American myths and history and gives them a modern resonance especially as it touches on topics of racism, sexism, and the wider diaspora.

As of the current moment, I am reading The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar. It was easy immersing myself in the voice of the main character, Nishat as the book starts out with her coming out as a lesbian to her Bangladeshi parents and their not-so-great reaction to it. I can’t wait to see where this book takes me.

Watching….

A lot of Community. A coworker turned me on to it a few months back but I only recently got really into it. It’s a comedy show that messes with its form with every episode and I’m absolutely here for it.

Listening…

I’m rededicating time to my old passion of just sitting and listening to music. I’ve discovered a few artist and albums that I absolutely fell for. I finished the Hadestown Musical soundtrack and loved how it reimagined the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Imagining the underworld as an industrial wasteland was a pretty interesting take.

Julien Baker released an album called Little Oblivions. I love the album as a whole but my favorite singles are “Faith Healer” and “Heatwave.”

Japanese Breakfast also released the single, Be Sweet, that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. I can’t wait for the album!

Writing…

This among other things. I’m trying to get my thoughts together and put some organization into them. Hopefully, the fruits of that labor will show itself.

Happy Friday!

I Thought I Was Cheated An Ending

There be spoilers, however, slight below. You’ve been warned!

I was tempted to be upset with All the Boys I’ve Loved Before when I finished it. The book just ends with no major resolution to love plot line.

After a good day of stewing, I took a step back and asked myself, ‘What was the point of the book?’ Not in a derisive way but in a general curious way. What did the author want to accomplish or what was supposed to shine through for the characters? Was the point for Lara Jean to end up with someone or was it something more than that. I reflected on how she changed over the course of the narrative and whether her main narrative still works without tying up this important knot.

Lara Jean lives in a world of fantasy. She has fanciful ideas of love and romance. She writes love letters to dispel crushes, locking her feeling away with pen and paper and a vintage hat box. But over the course of the narrative, her notions of love are complicated. When her deepest feelings are revealed to those boys of the past, they’re dredged up again. This is further complicated by her relationship with her older sister, Margot, the reality of hour relationships change and evolve, high school politics–the works! It’s through this whirlwind of events that she snags herself a ‘pretend’ boyfriend to ward off another. She gets to know her heart and the complexities therein.

The ending, in this context, makes sense. Lara Jean ends the book with a vague sadness. During the time of beginnings that is the New Year, she couldn’t explain why she was sad to her younger sister, Kitty. During the course of the narrative, Lara Jean emotionally matured. And that maturity leads to the inevitable truth that nothing ever lives up to fantasy. Doesn’t make it any less amazing or beautiful in its own way but it does disabuse you of notions of the perfect romance and happily ever after.

I used to tell myself that I just wasn’t into romance novels, movies, etc. But All the Boys I’ve Loved Before made me root for a romance that was fraught and made me sad that I didn’t get it. The book recognizes the bittersweetness of relationships, not just romantic ones. It made me crave more and that is the ultimate compliment I could give to a book, nay, any piece of media.

Yesterday [Review]

17264080The Skinny: Amanda is trying to get her life back on track after experiencing a recent tragedy. While making her way to her job, she runs into a Mark Callahan, a mounted policeman of the Chicago force. After their dramatic meeting, they feel drawn to each other. Almost as if they’ve known each other in a former life. Their discovery of what ties them together takes them from the battlefields of the Civil War to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

You know those novels where the premise just sounds so perfect. Where it seems to have the perfect blend of action, psychology, history with the right smatterings of a romance to make for a compelling narrative? Ever had all these hopes dashed?

Okay, that might be a bit harsh. While reading this book, I just couldn’t help but feel so disillusioned with everything: the characters, the structure, the romance (oh the romance!). But let me take a step back.

Of course, there were narrative elements I really did like about the story. The opening chapters are full of action and quirky character details were instantly engaging. Every step back in time was beautifully written with rich historical detail. I looked forward to the sections where we were seeing the Civil War through a child’s eyes and the devastation wrought by the Chicago Fire of 1871. Samyann’s clear love of Chicago, past and present, really comes through. These were the parts where I thought the book truly shined.

Let me just preface the next section by stating that I know that this book wasn’t written for me. For a mystery, horror, and nonfiction enthusiast, romance ends up being a really hit or miss genre. I more enjoy romance as a piece of greater narrative, not the point of the narrative. Whether two people get together can’t be the only stake. Despite the many elements in Yesterday, it is essentially a romance story with that one stake. More frustratingly, however, is that it’s a romance novel where I didn’t even care if the leads got together.

I really disliked the characters, particularly the leads. Amanda has suffered many tragic losses throughout her life and finds that these tragic incidents define her life. She refuses to get close to any other person. When she feels that she might lose someone, she completely breaks down. This is not too bad by itself but how it was executed grated on my nerves. She has obvious coping issues but the narrative posits love instead of therapy as her ultimate cure.

The psychological therapy where she regresses into her past life was supposed to reveal a trend of trauma and to figure out how she knows Mark, the other main lead. The story continually posits Mark as the fix to her trauma. That being together will ultimately fix Amanda’s mindset and I wasn’t here for it. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way and it was really difficult for me to root for them as a couple because of it. There’s no growth that naturally springs from the narrative. The solution is that they should be together and the narrative more hinges on that question than any personal development.

I also had a problem with how the story was structured. Most of the plot happens while the characters are sitting down talking and drinking their favorite beverage (be it wine, beer, coffee, what have you). Important plot points are referenced in the past tense. Scenes outside of these that I would’ve much rather seen like Mark’s discussion with the antique store owner are skipped over so the characters can talk about it in Amanda’s apartment. This structure becomes quite trying. Even in past scenes, I would’ve more liked to see how Bonnie’s (Amanda’s past life) family lived through the Civil War before ultimately making the decision to go North. Or how I would’ve loved to see Bonnie and Daniel first meeting in the past rather than just dropping into that story at a much later date–skipping right past their first meeting to their courting.

Unfortunately, this is why I could hardly enjoy the book. I really, really wanted to love it but I couldn’t.

 

My Rating:

1 star

Little Miss Perfectionist Hates Editing

Editing and revising is the most stressful part of the writing process. I think most people would agree with that but if you’re normal, unlike me, you knuckle down and just do it, right? Work is work no matter how much you love it.

My ideas and I go through a bit of a honeymoon period. When I first get them, they’re the most beautiful thing in the world. I daydream about it, heap upon it undeserved accolades, and the urge to just get down and dirty with it (the oh so titillating writing process) is too strong to be ignored.

First bumps in the road come with writing. We have our issues. It pushes me to the limit. Sometimes I question our relationship. The rosy glasses shatter and I see it for what it is. Something very flawed and struggling like the rest of them. But it’s okay. We can perhaps work through its issues.

And then editing. This is pretty much when I start burning the furniture. It can do nothing right. There are too many flaws. I hate it more than I thought I could hate anything and I want nothing more than to shove all its ill-conceived concepts in a hole and set fire to it.

But like most troubled relationships, there’s something thrilling in the dysfunction. I come back time and time again to the idea–thinking I can fix it. Sometimes I can, more often I have to live with it until the cycle starts all over again.

What that too elaborate metaphor was trying to say is that editing is hard. It’s impossible, or at least it can feel that way. But I’m too much of perfectionist to just let a story be. I get something from agonizing over grammar, dialogue, scenes, the plot. Tinkering with everything just sends me off on this rollercoaster of emotions that I just get off on.

I go through cycles of love and hate every time I tear into a piece. So yes, little miss perfectionist does hate editing. But she also loves it. As with anything I’m passionate about, I invest too much time and emotion to words, to characters, to ideas.

Even this piece, in its hasty construction, will get the fine editing treatment. I’ll cut lines, rearrange passages, tone down some parts, amp up others, and I’ll love detesting it. Or I’ll hate loving it.

 

The Skate Happy Mixtape

Amari Kendrick was having flashbacks to awkward middle school field trips. Bright disco lights flashed throughout the place. Pop trash from the likes of Justin Bieber and DNCE blasted over the stereo, vibrating off the walls. Was “Cake by the Ocean” even an appropriate song to play around 14 year olds?

Skate Happy always managed to have a dirty feel about the place. The atmosphere felt heavy with a distinct must layered beneath the smell of overpriced concession food and metal. The dark light intermingled with the Technicolor spotlights managed to add to the cheapness of the place. Amari could feel the building’s decades of history brimming like a strange electricity in the air. The memories of families, lovers, and friends trapped in a far gone space and time, continually circling the ring. Grooving out to disco, synth pop, and mainstream mistakes of the past. He could see its age from the scuff marks on the skate floor and the peeling on the walls.  

Now it was taken over by children, high on cake, chasing each other around the rink to the dancehall beats of Drake’s “One Dance.”

He needed a cigarette. He reached into his pocket and swore under his breath. Right, he left them in the car to show his commitment to quitting. He took a heavy whiff of his jacket sleeve to get a small taste of that sweet cancerous ash and nicotine.

A small part of him died when he could only smell the popcorn from the nearby concession stand.

“Will you stop that,” Tamika said as she pulled on his sleeve. “You look silly.”

“I don’t think inhaling my jacket sleeve is the silliest thing about this scenario,” he said as a group of kids passed right by them screaming about Joe Jonas. “Couldn’t you have chosen an adult session? Anything with a bit less awkwardness and overexcitement.”

He eyed the shadows across the rink. The emotions of the place emanating off of every teen like an impenetrable musk.

Tamika rolled her eyes. “Well, I would have, but you’re always busy on Thursdays. I have to take you whenever I can.”

“We could have had a nice dinner alone at your house—“

“And we can still have that later. After a bit of good exercise.” She stood up and performed an effortless twirl on roller blades.

There was a collective scream on the skate floor as a group of kids fell to the ground. They made the mistake of gripping onto each other for balance. The specter of embarrassment hovered over them, haunting a few as they flailed themselves back onto the carpet section.

“Exercise is not good for my smoker’s lung.” He hacked a little for emphasis.

She balanced her hands on his knees and looked him dead in the eye. “You don’t have a smoker’s lung yet, Amari.”

She straightened herself out and glided backwards, the breeze played with the stray curls at the top of her pineapple hairstyle. She playfully pushed out her lips dressed in dark rouge. “Besides, you promised.”

Her whimsy danced circles around her form and tempted him to his feet. He sometimes hated the power it had over him, bidding him to things that he’d never dream.

He balanced himself on unsteady ground. Every step he tried to take back pushed him forward. He swore aloud. He was too old to be dealing with this.

“You won’t fall if you hold my hand,” Tamika said as she attempted to steady him with a touch on his shoulder.

“No, that’ll only make us twice as likely to fall,” he said as he made a grab for her hand.

“I’m willing to take that risk. Besides, falling is more fun if you do it with someone else.”

“I beg to differ.” Amari stumbled forward. “Is it too late to get my seven dollars back?”

Tamika pursed her lips. And then the mood of the room changed.

The lights dimmed and a parade of color dots spilled onto the dance floor and darted about the room. There was silence and then a funky downbeat. There was a lull in the excitement as the kids started exiting the ring. Amari immediately recognized it. Tamika jumped up with a little squeal.

Do you remember/when we fell in love?

We were young and innocent then

“We need to get out there,” Tamika said as she started tugging him to the skate floor. “This is my jam!”

Tamika glided around the seat with an effortlessness Amari envied. She leaned over him, her eyes furrowed.

He remained stoically still.

“Amari, you promised.”

“I’m sorry, Tamika. My lack of coordination and my developing smoker’s lung prevents me from engaging in any physical activity.” He coughed for emphasis.

She pouted. “But you already paid seven dollars to get in.”

“Fair point,” He said with a slap on the knee. “I should get my money back.”

He made a move forward but it only propelled him back into the seat. That was not how this was supposed to work.

Tamika rolled next to him. Arms folded with a smile on her face. “Give up.”

“What?”

“You can’t escape the blades once you’ve taken your first step. Besides that, I’ll push you out into the skating floor if you try to leave.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “You wouldn’t.”

“Oh, but I would. I’d love to see you flail back over here.”

Amari smiled as Tamika’s smile grew more victorious. She took him by the hand and coaxed him towards the skating floor.

“Just a couple of laps, okay?”

A pink light caught the side of her face, making her dark eyes shine in the darkness. Her curls also glistened as if they were sprinkled with dew. Amari’s breath caught as the chorus kicked in.

Do you remember the time /when we fell in love?

Do you remember the time/ when we first met, girl?

A spell was cast as they drew to the center of the skate floor. A gentle breeze followed their movements. Tamika took the lead. She laughed out loud as she spun around bringing them both into a twirl. They spun around and around to the beat. Tamika threw her head back, joy exuding off her like a powerful wave. It was enough to overcome Amari’s recurring terror of falling down.

But there was a fun that hung around them like a lucky haze. It intoxicated him.He drew her close until they could feel each other’s body heat. He was surprised at how deftly he managed this.From her wide eyed expression, she was equally astounded but it melted into a smile that hinted at a bit of playfulness. She put her fingers in between his. His hands wandered down to the small of her back.

“Will you have this dance with me, sir?”

“I would be honored madam.”

But they didn’t dance. They held each other close as the lights continued to swirl around them and Michael Jackson continued to ask “Do you remember…”

And Amari did remember. As they continued to slowly turn in the ring, his mind was brought back to that summer night so long ago. When he went out back to escape the stifling heat and the smell of cooking grease to smoke a little. Tamika just so happened to be turning that corner to get home with a carry out box in her hand. At that point, she was just a regular at the restaurant who always ordered the steak burgers and chili fries.

“I compensate for it by skating three times a week,” she confided in a conspiratorial whisper  in one of the  two times that they had talked to each other.

She walked through the excess smoke from the grill and she asked for his number.

He was so caught off guard with a cigarette hanging out his mouth that all he could bring himself to say was, “Why?”

She laughed. “Because you’re cute, dummy.”

And somehow, they’ve been together ever since. His memories weren’t as romantic as places like bars or beaches or Spain. But there was always a latent charm in their simplicity. There were late nights talks, arguments over Star Wars, home cooked meals, microwaved meals, window shopping in thrift stores and dancing to music that no one else could hear. Even being ogled at by a bunch of prepubescents in a musty skating warehouse didn’t seem so bad.

Tamika brought out a side of him that he never knew and that kind of terrified him. It really terrified him. He could see his commitment issues standing at ringside.

And then the spell was broken. “Party in the USA” blasted through the loudspeakers and the kids started to flood back into the ring. A line of overexcited teens got a little too close and Amari tried to maneuver himself out of their way, forgetting that he couldn’t skate that well.

He was suddenly looking at the ceiling before he felt his back slammed into the floor. For a moment, the world went dark as pain shot into his shoulders, his forehead. The next moment, he saw Tamika standing over him with both hands cupped over her mouth.

“You okay?”

“If okay feels like a truck slamming into you.”

She forced back a smile as she held a hand out to him. “Just walk it off big guy.”

“Assuming I can still walk,” he said grabbing hold.

Amari slowly tripped himself back onto his feet and Tamika guided him off the skating floor.

“That’s perhaps enough excitement for today,” she said as she grabbed their shoes out of their shared locker.

“Uh-huh,” he said while rubbing his aching shoulders in the waiting seats. He knew he was really going to feel that fall in the morning. Just in time for his 6AM shift.

“Was it fun at least,” she asked as she took the seat next to him.

He took a moment to think about it. “Yeah.”

“So much so that you’ll come to the next session with me?”

“I’m not sure about that,” Amari said with a smile.

 

My Few Travails With Romance Writing

I tend to avoid writing romance in my stories.

This is not a denigration of the genre as a whole. I don’t mind romance in fiction, nonfiction, what have you. But it would be disingenuous of me if I didn’t admit that I am burned out by how romance is generally written or portrayed in popular media. I’m for affection no matter how grandeur or sedate. I’m not a big fan of romance revolving around a chase or comic misunderstandings that could be solved by “talking with each other.”  But I won’t focus on that. Not now at least.

But that’s not the main reason why I don’t often write romance. It’s more that my mind skews platonic when I contemplate most character relationships. And this wasn’t always the case.

Back in the early days of writing (I’m talking 10-12) romance was always at the forefront of my mind. A lot of the things I liked had a romantic element in it and I wanted to emulate that. I’m talking Disney with its princess plots, the music I listened to on loop were love songs, anime like Ranma 1/2 and Clannad with their protracted “will they/won’t they” subplots, and all the YA I was reading like Twilight and the Fallen series. Romance was everywhere and I tended to pen plots where they were heavily featured or hinted. I also had a rather juvenile conception of what love and affection actually looked like. Thanks to said anime shows, my earliest characters were always sniping at each other and the violence only escalated until they were maiming each other with bats and exploding ovens to show their affection. (Yes, a truly healthy relationship!)

But the older I grew, the less these things appealed to me. The less I found myself including romance in my stories. Romance plots bored me. I started rolling my eyes at love at first sight and I grew disenchanted with “hate upon meeting” relationships.

But outside of the cliches, I just never felt comfortable in including romance in my stories. Perhaps it was shame looking at my earlier work and coming to the conclusion that I really didn’t have a talent for it. Often as I wrote characters getting intimate, I found myself embarrassed for them. Some story ideas were ended outright because I blushed too much to continue. But more than anything, I found myself more inclined to other genres. I like dark humor, mystery, and story subjects that focused on the weird and fantastical.

But I haven’t completely abandoned romance in stories. There’s something beautiful in crafting a relationship two characters that find something transcendent in their affection for each other. But I also want to explore relationships where the rose tint fades and people find something more to love in the ordinary. There’s a beauty in comfort that I think gets underrepresented in love stories.

In fact, I have a few projects which I hope to include some romantic element in them. Not sure how good I’ll be at it but trying will be fun!

Dark Matter [Review]

dark matterYou all will find out pretty quickly that one of my favorite genres of literature (movie, podcast, what have you) are thrillers and mysteries. It was why I was so excited to dig my teeth into this book.

Dark Matter is wild. It’s more than wild, it’s improbable and yet I couldn’t stop reading.

It’s a thriller with a sci-fi twist. A sci-fi twist with a romantic subplot. A romantic subplot with an underlying universal message about the dynamics of choice and finding your own meaning on what makes life worth living.

The main crux of the story deals with the multiverse theory and it deftly handles the subject. It’s accessible enough to not get lost in the more sci-fi elements because its story is rather simple once you strip it down to its basic elements.

It’s a love story—simple and sweet. Jason Dressen just wants to get home to his wife and son. This one hope carries him through all the strangeness and horror that he’s confronted with.

I’m also fairly intrigued by the convolutedness that is this story’s multiverse theory. Touching this beast of a concept could make or break a story but with this one there was never a time where I sat back and thought “Now hold on a minute….” I did stop but it was with going through the motions of the character where we were both struck by the odds that are continually stacked against him. Based on the craziness set up, I think it ended satisfactorily.

There are loose ends but the story avoids definitive conclusions. The whole premise underlying the narrative is that we can never be sure of the choices we make—we can never be sure if they were the right ones and there’s no true way of knowing.

Regret is unavoidable but we can’t wallow in it. Life moves on but so must we. The problems begin when we continually beg the question. The story begins when someone rather close to the narrator gets selfish and wanted the “what if” and built something to cheat the system.

If it wasn’t obvious, I loved Dark Matter in all its craziness.

My Rating:

4 Stars_2