28 February, 2014

Moonstruck Madness And Domestic Violence

I bang on a lot about the way domestic violence can be subtly normalized in the genre. Back in the day, the DV was more open and obvious than it is now. While rereading Moonstruck Madness I wondered if the lack of subtlety will make readers less accepting of the main couple than the more obscured abuse dynamics of today. If you're considering reading Moonstruck Madness do not read this piece.
As I discussed in the review, Sabrina grows up quickly on the battlefields of Culloden. Sabrina is taught, through events in the book, that she cannot rely on any man. Even the hero is unreliable, leaving her HEA more of a Best She Could Hope For than a true HEA. All he has to do to win her is show up. Seriously, that's it. He doesn't have to be honest, faithful, nonviolent or supportive. Sabrina has saved so many days by this point that she's just tired of it all. She needs to land somewhere and he's holding a net.
Let's start with the examples. Please keep in mind that this was a bestselling book considered (at the time) to be a sweet or mild read. In this first excerpt Lucien has just recently met Sabrina. While disguised as a highwayman, she is shot and taken captive. Discovering she is female, Lucien decides to rape her.
Some man would’ve caught her by now; besides, her type never had been innocent, they knew what a man wanted before he did, and she would welcome the chance to buy her way out of the predicament she found herself in. Right now she was too angry and frightened to realize this. But soon, the seduction would begin. - McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (pp. 97-98). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
Super creepy, right? Hey, but it's FINE, it's OKAY because at the same time Sabrina is planning to buy her way out of this hostage crisis through sex. So in effect, he's right. This girl half his age is planning on welcoming his attentions in exchange for an escape route. Which she does. This is pretty much it for their sex life. Sabrina and Lucien spend just enough time in bed to trap her later.  Sabrina's long lost dad shows up to sell her to the highest bidder. She's not happy about it but she accepts her limited options. Lucien screws that up which leads to her father freaking out.
She groaned in pain as time and time again the sharp pain tore across her soft shoulders, ripping the thin material of her bodice and scoring the tender skin with angry welts.  McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (p. 198). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
So her father has fought off one daughter and is blind to anything but abusing the second when the doorbell rings. (Stepmom is pregnant and therefore washing her hands of the matter.) It's Lucien. Her sister Mary is quick to explain Sabrina's life is in danger.
“The marquis is beating her, and it is all your fault,” she accused him, tears streaking her cheeks.  McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (p. 199). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
Lucien saves the day, informs Sabrina she's marrying him and begins his efforts to pay off her dad so he'll leave town. Sabrina isn't so into this. She (and Mary) are busy blaming Lucien for their father's actions, which allows the reader to transfer sympathy to a guy who shot her, planned to rape her, and then invaded her bedroom uninvited for another round.
“I’m not gloating, Sabrina. I would never have you harmed like this,” he told her truthfully.  McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (p. 200). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
He wouldn't whip her so the stuff he WOULD do is totally cool. Lucien informs her of his plans. He's shocked to discover that Sabrina isn't so interested in marrying. He's a rich old guy. She was perfectly willing to marry a different rich old guy. Obviously she's just immature. He tells her to grow up, reminds her she faces prison for theft and tells her that's a super rapey place to hang out. Sabrina doesn't find this endearing. She tells her sister Mary that she'd rather kill Lucien than marry him, so Mary decides Sabrina is unstable and becomes Team Lucien for the rest of the book. Later in the book Sabrina slaps him for refusing to accept her refusals.
Without stopping to think, Lucien slapped her back, reacting in the heat of anger and an instant’s uncontrollable rage. Sabrina’s head jerked back with the force of his hand, and the imprinted outline of his fingers stained her white cheek vividly in angry red marks.  McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (p. 231). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
“All I want to do is kiss you, and I end up hurting you. Forgive me. I’ve never raised my hand against a woman before,”  McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (p. 231). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
Uh-huh. Nobody's ever heard that one before, buddy. Cue the sex scene, interrupted by her angry younger brother. He takes a shot at Lucien but misses.
“You were being mean to her. You made her cry, I heard you, and she told you to leave her alone,” Richard defended himself with childish logic.  McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (p. 233). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
There's nothing childish about Richard's logic. Unlike the rest of her family, Richard has a clue. Here's how Sabrina's sister Mary reacts to events.
“I think you should not wait any longer than necessary to marry her. Take her away from here right now. Kidnap her if necessary, McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (p. 239). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
Well what about Sabrina's trusted friends? They will protect her, right? To their credit, they set a trap for Lucien. He's a duke. They're tenant farmers. Laying a single finger on him is punishable by death in their world, but they set about laying several fingers on him in an attempt to dissuade him from further harassing Sabrina. They lose.
Tell Sabrina I’ll exact my revenge very shortly. She may count on it.” He turned and walked off, ignoring Will’s, “Hey, wait a minute, you’ve got it all wrong!”  McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (p. 249). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
Faced with having further angered him Will and John decide… to do nothing. Lucien's ability to fight them off has won him some respect. Sabrina will not be happy they've increased his anger towards her so they keep it a secret. Let's pause and unpack that. Lucien is more physically threatening than they realized. He is now angrier at Sabrina. The answer to this is to stop trying to protect her. Oh, Romance.
Luckily for Sabrina she's busy contracting a serious fever that will trigger her PTSD and render her an amnesiac. Lucien marries her while she's still dazed and confused. The reader is shown how good their relationship could be if Sabrina would just stop having her own emotions. Rightfully angry after regaining her memory she confronts her sister.
I can’t believe that Lucien would have hit you. Why have you remembered everything suddenly?” Mary demanded in confusion. “Lucien has been so kind these last few weeks. Was it only an act? I can’t understand.”  McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (p. 310). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
Mary has a memory issue of her own, doesn't she? This is a common domestic violence situation. The abuser on good behavior makes the abused and those surrounding her doubt their own experience. The violence is the act, the violence is the aberration, the violence is something to ignore in pursuit of the good times. Sabrina realizes she's trapped. She settles into a resentful life as a pregnant duchess while Lucien runs to the city where a woman might appreciate his attentions.
How to pull a HEA out of this mess? Cue the showing up part of the tale. Sabrina sits alone, spending Lucien's money and nursing her baby. Vulnerable and trapped she romanticizes the good times they had when she wasn't in her right mind. Sabrina wants those back, and therefore wants Lucien back as well. Events lead to her chasing off to Scotland where she is reunited with the man who saved her life at Culloden. He's gone stark raving mad in the intervening five years. Despite being days behind her, Lucien shows up at the crucial second to save the day.
“You came, you came when I needed you. Oh, Lucien, I don’t ever want to leave you again. Never let me go, please,” she pleaded tearfully as she buried her face against his shoulder, blocking out the chilling sight of poor Ewan MacElden, once, long ago, piper of the clan. McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (p. 364). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
By now both Sabrina and the reader have been gaslit to the point that we're willing to accept anyone not actively trying to kill her.
“I missed you desperately, Lucien, and I longed for you to come to me. I thought if ever I got back to Camareigh I would do anything to try and make you love me. My pride be damned, life isn’t worth living without you, Lucien,”  McBain, Laurie (2011-02-01). Moonstruck Madness (Casablanca Classics) (p. 365). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.
When I talk about abuse dynamics in the genre they aren't as cleanly laid out as they are in Moonstruck Madness. Like Mary, it's easy for readers to focus on the good times and dismiss bad ones. A story does not have to be made simplistic nor it's hero uninteresting for a romance not to perpetuate DV messages. In the same way that these passages may shock or repel a modern reader I hope that one day the coded DV still upheld in the genre shocks and repels future ones. We've come a long way, baby, but we're nowhere near home yet.
*This post originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

25 February, 2014

Review: Moonstruck Madness by Laurie McBain

Laurie McBain is an author  often underrepresented in casual histories of the genre. Moonstruck Madness did massive business. I decided to revisit Moonstruck Madness because it was the book I remembered the least. MM is a glorious train wreck of domestic violence and kitchen sink plotting. No wonder I forgot most of it.
We open with Sabrina as a small tween on the battlefields of Culloden. Battle worn and weary, she's fleeing for her life. (I didn't pause to do the math, but I think she's 11 or 12 here. Five years later her elder sister is 18 or 19, so let's ballpark it there.)  Sabrina gathers the remaining members of her family and travels to her deadbeat dad's abandoned estate. Of course she embarks on a life of crime to pay the bills and restore the estate to sustainability. This is a classic 70's / 80's thing. A couple teenage girls, a senile aunt, a servant or two with a very young heir suddenly occupy the family manor and no one ever asks where the money is coming from. Dad is off with the second family in Italy or Spain or wherever, but it's all good.
Enter our hero - Lucien, the Duke of something or other. He's got a controlling grandmother, murderous (and likely incestuous) cousins, a seriously bad attitude and Marry By This Date stamped on his inheritance. He starts out determined to capture the local highwayman, so he shoots Sabrina. In a modern Avon Romance this would form the majority of the plot. Back in the day, we were just getting started. Sabrina taking a bullet from this dude is like the meet cute. Sex happens (ow!) and she's on her way. Over the course of the book Sabrina will be beaten with a whip, slapped across the face, survive multiple murder attempts (by multiple murderers) get married, be pregnant, have PTSD, and THEN start to fall for the Duke. (I left some stuff out, this review can't go longer than my attention span.)  Ok, so after all that she and Lucien start to wonder if they like each other. They do, of course, so a bunch of other stuff happens and then they are in loooooove and the book ends. (Spoiler alert.)
Here's the thing about 70's / 80's big books. For all that I absolutely despise the normality of abuse in the relationships I also really admire how Sabrina is a person with a unique backstory. Her strength and determination to overcome obstacles is not a bug to be addressed, but a feature. Some men admire her, some are fatigued by her, some want to change her, but the women all consider her a person to deal with rather than a problem to correct. She is occasionally self sabotaging and highly emotional, but she's also a teenager. Most of the other women fall into super convenient categories. There's a cheating fianceé whose murder no one cares about enough to even resolve, a crazy psychopath for whom disfigurement is punishment enough, an eccentric elderly grandmother who holds all the power, a psychic sister who longs for a conventional life, and the demented aunt who pivots the plot at the last second. Seriously classic stuff.
What turned me off about Moonstruck Madness (and still does) is the way violence between the hero and heroine is excused. Setting aside the fact that he shoots her early in the book, their relationship is incredibly toxic. He's forcing her into situations she would rather escape. Her sister aids and abets him because of her visions and also because she seems to accept his actions as inevitable. Sabrina is a woman alone, struggling to save people who completely fail to appreciate or protect her. I found this one of the most believable aspects of Moonstruck Madness. When you are in a violent relationship people will not protect you. They will give you up without a second thought because your abuser has learned his lesson, he's really in love, he's never going to harm you now. This is both utterly untrue and a myth our culture refuses to abandon.
But back to Lucien. He's not seen by himself or the book as abusive. There are other toxic men in Sabrina's life largely given a pass while Lucien takes some of their blame along with his own. This sets the reader to be more sympathetic to him than his actions dictate. He's deceptive (so is she!) and occasionally violent (so is she!) but the book couples his shouldering of undue blame with the both sides are guilty twist to absolve him. Even Sabrina, after all that has occurred, parrots the "He'd never hurt me" lines. By the standards of the genre at the time, he won't. He's decided he loves her and that makes it different. 
*This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

20 February, 2014

Review: No Place for A Dame by Connie Brockway

Uncle. Seriously. I give up.

I’ve been trying to read Connie Brockway’s No Place For A Dame since November 1st. I think three months is enough. Why don’t I love this book? No idea. None. The setup is a science minded heroine and her non science minded man. There’s class conflict – he’s titled, she’s the daughter of an employee. Brockway is an author I generally enjoy, and yet  five seconds after I’ve set it down I forget everything about it. Are those scenes from this book? Other books? What was it about again? Oh yea.. I should… is that glitter?

Avery Quinn, our heroine, is the daughter of (a gamekeeper?) someone who saved our hero’s dad’s life and has therefore been set up as a quasi ward. She’s been shipped out to various scientific homes to study astronomy under the greats. If Avery was overly worldly and possibly cynical it would make some sense. Instead Avery has emerged from her academic travels almost painfully naive. She is neither of her originating class nor of her adoptive one, and she seems to understand little of both. There’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl happening here, actually. Avery is blasting into Giles life with her obsessions and her quirks to shine a light into his corners. I think. Remember, I didn’t finish it.

So Giles is charming, rich, titled and with daddy issues for days when Avery (decides? requires?) takes a trip to London so she can join the Royal Astronomical Society by cross dressing. (As you do.) There’s some reason Giles has to go along with it (or suggests it?) but he leaves her to get there solo to see if her disguise will hold. She is neither quickly unmasked nor entirely successful in her disguise. Rather than having the Magic Breasts For Binding that so many full figured heroines do, Avery find herself wearing a fat suit. She’s a Humpty Dumpty of a lad with spindly legs and arms and a youthful face. People find her odd, but not as odd as Giles being interested in the stars.

I think the point where I gave up was something to do with her wanting to see the gentleman’s club, which Giles balks at. She is trapped in the house and bored so she befriends another young man thereby ending up in a carriage crash outside the same gentleman’s club, which Giles then invites her into. His objections that were routed in principal are suddenly swept away by practicality. There’s a lot of this in the oddly titled No Place for A Dame, Avery cannot do things until suddenly she can. Things are wrong until they are not. Let’s all smash the patriarchy because science.

There’s some bit about spy cartels and missing agents and mortal enemies and Giles being in disguise and… surely in all of this there would be something for me to care about? One would think? Alas, there was not. No Place for A Dame should have been an Americana piece about the infiltration of local government during prohibition. Or something. Something other than pseudo ward / spy guardian it’s tough out here for a lady scientist in Romanceland romping. Anyway, everyone loves it but me. If egg slash is your thing, Avery’s got your suit. Go crazy.

*This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins

17 February, 2014

Review: The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin

The Jade Temptress technically has a March release date. I’ve stopped advance reviewing because people find it annoying, but Harlequin has a history of early release in it’s e-store and I wanted to talk about something I liked for a change. We’ll keep it spoiler free. A few pages in to The Jade Temptress I realized I hadn’t read The Lotus Palace. (Apparently I confused two Lin titles.)  While I imagine the emotional punch might be greater if the series is read in order, I didn’t find it necessary to enjoy the tale.

Mingyu is wonderful. She is essentially a slave with extreme privileges. Bound by debt to her foster mother, Mingyu alternates between her duties as an entertainer and her obligation to obey the dictates of her house. Mingyu is keenly aware that her life of silks and power hinges on keeping the powerful men of the district interested. She is also fiercely ambitious. Having had the option of being purchased from her house to be her protector’s concubine, Mingyu chose to remain as she was. Outwardly demure and acquiescent, Mingyu directs the lives of those around her skillfully. She is not emotionless, but she is highly controlled.

Equally controlled is the town constable, Wu Kaifeng. As ambitious as Mingyu, Kaifeng seeks not power but peace. Kaifeng is a self made man from difficult beginnings who approaches the world scientifically. He dreams of a quietly responsible life but faithfully performs the duties he has fallen into. Mingyu is the flame to his moth, difficult to ignore and almost certain to be ruinous. For a time, it seems Kaifeng is right, as death threatens to destroy everything they have worked for. Divided by class and preference, a failure to control their emotions would end them both.

I enjoyed The Jade Temptress. Toward the end there was a bit too much deus ex machina for my taste. Mingyu dispenses too easily with those I felt would have treated her violently. While I felt the economic constraints on the characters were well handled overall, there were Cinderella moments I disagreed with. I’m not sure there would have been a better way to handle it, but I wanted one. Ultimately The Jade Temptress gets a strong recommendation from me. Due to personal events I stopped and started half a dozen books before Jeannie Lin caught my attention. She held it easily right to the final page.

*This review originally appeared at Love in The Margins

03 February, 2014

Elizabeth "Betty" Rogers Fertig 1921 - 2014

Since August of 2012 there have been a succession of deaths in my life. One week in 2014 was bookended by the loss of my closest friend and the loss of a primary childhood mentor. One loss was encompassing, the other came as a whisper from the newspaper. It's the whisper I want to talk about. Betty opened a franchise of The Book Rack in my hometown when I was almost ten years old.  It wasn't until I read her obituary that it hit me what an astonishing influence she had been on my life.

We were not friends. Certainly, she was friendly to me but she was also frequently impatient and I was a child over attuned to the responses of adults. I never knew if I was going to jeopardize what I saw as precarious privileges. Now, with adult eyes, I realize our relationship was extraordinary. The public library was a several hour walk from my home, while Betty's store was less than two miles. I would pack a shoulder bag with books scavenged from flea market trash bins and bring them in for her approval. I think she took more than she truly wanted, because when she would reject a book there was a regretful explanation of why. Betty allowed me to spend hours in the store unchallenged. I was never asked to leave, even if a whole day had passed. I was quiet. My much younger sibling was permitted to do the same, but was more restless than I. We would arrange the shelves. Sometimes she might direct a customer to a certain section and I would find the item they were looking for and point to it without speaking. Then I'd slide into another aisle so they could shop privately. Eventually, when I was eleven or so, Betty trusted me enough to run errands for her or to watch the store while she walked down to the cafe. She kept a foreign language shelf in the back. When I took my wagon of Girl Scout cookies to meet incoming ships at the port, I'd pass out bookmarks to the sailors. "Biscoito? Livro?"

None of this is the remarkable part. Betty allowed me to read anything I wanted. After lugging my bag of books in for credit (never for cash, although I was always hustling for money) I'd lug home a different bag of books to read. Despite my age, Betty never censored my choices. She might ask if I was certain, or ask me to take a more worn copy if there were duplicates, but the books I chose were the books I took. "Bring this one back quickly, it's popular" was a common admonishment for new releases. When offered recent release books by family or family friends, I always rushed them into the shop. In exchange for being helpful and respectful, I had a safe haven and unlimited resources. Through her store I read college textbooks, WW2 pocket series, gothics, romances, mysteries, horror, Sartre, Camus, Chaucer, travel guides, sex manuals, science fiction. Anything my fingers touched could be mine, for as long as I wanted it.

For a child of dubious economics and questionable school attendance this was an amazing opportunity. By sixth grade I'd read all of Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries. I knew my Sheridan from my Moliere. By ninth grade I was familiar with multiple schools of philosophy and the evolution of horror from Lovecraft to Saul. I supplied V.C. Andrews books to half my middle school and Rosemary Rogers to the other. While my formal education was sporadic and truncated, my informal one was limitless. Betty never asked me to defend a choice or explain it. There were no quizzes, no essays, no instruction on how to experience a book. If it was Thomas Hardy or Willman's Thomasina the most she'd say would be "Did you like this one? Was it good? Should I highlight it on the suggestion wall?" Betty Fertig treated a street kid like an intellectual equal and changed an unknown number of lives as a result. I'm grateful I was polite enough to frequently check in as an adult and let her see how I was getting on.