How far is too far in Wonkomance?

I like to skate the edge of romance in my reading. That is true of all of us, seeing as you’re at Wonkomance, but how far is too far? The answer is going to be different for every person. That’s okay. This isn’t a wonkacontest! (Although, interesting idea, right? *files that away*)

Sometimes there is a tendency to say, if something gets just too weird, or just too dark, this is not a romance. Let’s call it erotica or horror or even general fiction because it’s setting of the romance-formula sensors! But I think that’s a disservice to the romance genre.

For example, some people might say that a well-written romance is no longer a romance, but is now a literary novel with romantic elements. No way, I’m keeping them! If it features an emotional and sexual connection between two (or possibly three or more, etc) characters and ends with an HEA, then I’m liable to call it a romance.

Plus it’s not even very accurate. Often something referred to as erotica or dark erotica contains contains less sexual content and less explicit verbiage than tamer romances. Case in point: fan favorite author of “dark erotica”, Kitty Thomas.

I’ll admit to being a little disillusioned with dark romance myself. The cover and blurb claim it’s dark and haunting, but then there’s no real danger. There’s just hinting, over and over again. But my crank – it is tough one! Hints will not turn it, not if I’m looking for the edge.

So how thrilled was I to find the epically long book Heat by R.L. Smith? In fact, the review that brought it to my attention, although positive, so emphasized the darkness that it turned me away. That’s tough to do. Thankfully, the readers in my romance group bit the bullet for me and reported back all good things, so I read it.

Wow, it is both long and amazing! Not for the faint of heart, though, not even for the normal of heart. Just call me an insane-thrill-seeker of the heart.

Here, have an excerpt:

“Well?” he asked, his voice pitched low.

She swept her gaze across the yard. “There’s lots of cars,” she said. “I only see two that look like they can drive, but they can drive…there’s tracks in the dirt.” She pointed.

Good eye. Again, Kane found himself thinking that his father would definitely like this human.

“And there’s a lot of junk everywhere, but it’s not all overgrown. Someone lives here.” She sniffed the air, an action that struck Kane as incredibly cute, considering how useless the human olfactory senses were. “And someone’s been barbquing tonight.” She licked her lips and then stiffened up and looked at him. “Are you…going to kill people?”

“Yes.” Kane gave her wrist a squeeze to get her attention as she tried to curl in on herself. “But if you’re good, I won’t make you help.”

This book is the skydiving of romance. No, it’s crazier than that. It’s the Running with the Bulls of romance. But I liked it. I even found it… romantic? Yes. But of course, it’s a romance!

So, what is your ‘edge play’ when it comes to romance? Any hard limits we should know about? What do you use to screen prospective books (ie. reviews, warning labels, samples) or do you prefer to be surprised?

Posted in Talking Wonkomance | 8 Comments

The Mysterious Sausage

Something struck me during all the coverage a certain book has been getting – to the point where I had to make words with my fingers about it, here. After all, it’s pretty apropos, considering. And by apropos, I probably mean something else altogether because I’m not quite sure if apropos is really the right word. Maybe I’m looking for more of a fitting or a salient, and should just go with them, instead.

Either way, I digress,

When what I really wanted to say was:

50 Shades of Grey? Is not really all that unconventional.

I mean, the news keeps saying it is. Mainstream sorts of people are discussing it in hushed tones, amazed that women like something so daring. But all that did was flag up (again) a major disconnect, for me, between the majority of people and the world of erotic romance.

Because in the world of erotic romance, 50 Shades isn’t unconventional at all. It isn’t even slightly risque, or a tiny bit daring. In fact, it slots right in like a nice oblong sort of thing into a kind of…awkward…diamond shaped hole? Or maybe a hole that sounds less as though I don’t know what vaginas really look like?

Or penises, for that matter, because seriously…oblong is what I come up with, when I’m trying to be coy? I don’t even know what I was thinking. Penises aren’t oblong! They’re more like…uh…um…they’re more like sausages, even though sausages don’t really go with the theme I’m trying for, here. Triangle, circle, square…sausage.

Yeah, you see – it doesn’t go. No kid is going to play with that toy set. Mostly I think they’ll just be confused, that in amongst their brightly coloured and perfectly symmetrical plastic shapes, there’s a mysterious sausage.

And to be honest, I know how they feel. Because I don’t know how a mysterious sausage got into this post, either. I can’t even remember what I was talking about, now – or at the very least I don’t know how to segue back into it. So I think I’ll just go with something awkward and laboured, like:

50 Shades isn’t a mysterious sausage. It’s a normal triangle. It’s the opposite of unconventional: it’s standard. Because let’s face it…femsub is hardly a new concept, in the world of erotic romance. And even if you’re thinking of the more wonktastical, cutting edge sort of femsub…well.

50 Shades ain’t it.

I mean, just look at some of the contents:

* Billionaire hero – arrogant, aloof, closed off. Sound familiar? It should. Harlequin has been featuring heroes like that for years. Nay – decades.

And then there’s the heroine:

* Timid, out of her depth, no idea she’s a submissive.

I mean, that’s almost every book Ellora’s Cave has ever put out. They’re the ones who broke ground with female characters like that. Hell, Black Lace broke ground with that type of heroine back in, like, 1993.

So what has made it so popular? Is it the Twilight connection? Certainly a lot has been made of it being Twilight for Moms, but then…isn’t Twilight already Twilight for Moms? That idea makes no sense for me anyway, because the book bears little resemblance to its source – to the point where it kind of irritates me that people moan about it being fanfiction.

It isn’t fanfiction. It’s just Robert Pattinson’s face pasted onto a hero’s, really, which is about the same thing that 90% of the authors I know do.

No, no, it’s not the Twilight thing. I think the classy covers and the air of respectability about them has more to do with its success, than Twilight, in all honesty. Which leads me to one other idea, that circles back around on what I was trying to say in the first place.

It’s not its unconventionality that has made it popular. I think it’s the very familiarity of it – a familiarity that’s now suddenly on the cusp of being acceptable, in the mainstream. I’ve certainly noticed that erotic romance is starting to crossover into just romance, now. Even the tamest of lines and labels are featuring books that have a higher sex content – something that would have been unthinkable, ten years ago. That’s why erotic romance as a genre was needed – to fill that gap in women’s reading.

And that’s what 50 Shades is doing now – only out in the open. Those crisp, clean, acceptable covers! The veneer of mainstream that’s already on them, with a connection to a “normal” book! And to top it off, the content is what women have been wanting to read (and have been reading all along, on the sly) all this time.

They’ve just been waiting for the Washington Post to catch up.

All of which is very heartening, in one way, to me. Erotic content is becoming acceptable, it’s becoming normal. People are starting to realise that women actually do have sexual fantasies and feelings, and want to explore them. I’m all for that!

But at the same time, I can’t help thinking that the truly wonktastic is being marginalised, yet again. In holding up 50 Shades as something new and surprising (when really it’s anything but), all those weird heroes and femdom heroines and strange stories about odd feelings get sidelined, yet again.

If 50 Shades is weird, I’m weirder. We’re weirder. And though I pretend otherwise and champion the strange and the odd, I do long for the day when that’s not the case. When my beta hero isn’t berated, for being a bit sad. When someone’s strong heroine isn’t criticised, for being just that.

When the truly unconventional is loved, as much as its opposite.



Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 24 Comments

Historical Wonktastical: Not Quite A Husband, but Quite a Wonkomance

Who says a wonkomance must languish in obscurity? This installment’s offering was the 2010 RITA® winner for historical romance!

Popularity and acclaim notwithstanding, Not Quite a Husband is a wonkomance of the first order, and it was the book that first alerted me to the possibility of wonk in a historical (thank you, Sherry Thomas!). In this case the main font of wonk is the heroine, Bryony Asquith. Doctor Bryony Asquith, rather–and that right there tells you this won’t be your garden variety Victorian-era ingenue heroine.

Cover of Not Quite a Husband

Bryony is a surgeon, a skilled and respected professional woman, who nevertheless falls under the spell of a society darling and marries him. Their marriage lasts barely a year before disintegrating. That much we know at the beginning of the book’s primary story, set three years later in India. In the course of learning how and why they split up in the first place, we also see that they probably needed to become the people they are now in order to actually be together…but right up until the end, the book keeps us in suspense about how that will happen. In the meantime we relive the most painful, poignant moments of their brief marriage in flashes, until we finally have the entire picture.

Leo has been enamored of Bryony since childhood, and in his continued fascination with her adult self he overlooks the fact that her lifestyle–that of a busy, practicing doctor–is a very poor match for his own. He writes brilliant mathematical papers, and his expedition to Greenland was a success, but for all that, he’s a bit of a dandy and enjoys his position in society. He starts the courtship by teasing the seemingly unapproachable Bryony, who chastises him for pretending to seek a kiss, revealing her lack of tact in the process in a scene that I just adored.

“I apologize. I didn’t mean to take it as far as I did. But you were so delectably innocent–“

“I am not. What’s making love but a penis penetrating a vagina, discharging semen in the process?”

He was taken aback. Then he smiled lopsidedly. “That is most edifying. And here I thought it was all about valentines and sonnets.”

“Well, I’m glad one of us is amused,” she said huffily. She made for the door, but he reached it before she did. 

“You are angry. Was I truly reprehensible?”

“Yes, you were. […] I will have you know I do not lack for masculine admiration. And I know exactly how to sin to keep my virtue intact. There is frottage. There is manual manipulation. There is oral stimulation. Not to mention good old bugg–“

He kissed her. 

Well, with all that talk of frottage and buggery, who wouldn’t? Then he whispers some sweet nothings, namely telling her she smells of industrial-strength solvents. Winning! Anyway, soon thereafter, Bryony proposes to Leo, and he accepts her.

To me, this book was all about what kinds of experiences do and don’t change people. Marriage doesn’t change people in and of itself. But both Leo and Bryony expect a transformation. Leo thinks he is marrying an original, the remarkable girl he fell in love with as a boy and never got over as an adult, his dream woman who will blossom as his wife (specifically, he thinks she’ll relax once she has sex). Instead, he finds himself wed to a woman he rarely sees, who’s cold and distant and takes things very, very seriously. She’s still as socially awkward as ever. She’s not a fun girl, is Bryony. Not at the breakfast table, not in bed. Whereas Leo starts out blithe and becomes a broken mess before they can reconcile, Bryony starts out broken, alienated by her intelligence, her chosen path in life, and her general reserve when it comes to human interaction. She looks to the marriage with Leo to save her, transform her from an ugly duckling into a swan–and when it fails to, they both feel betrayed in more ways than one.

She’d been gambling. And their marriage was the bet upon which she’d staked everything. Because if he loved her, it would make her as beautiful, desirable, and adored as he. And it would prove everyone who never loved her definitively wrong…

Not exactly Paris in the springtime... (Image by Rchughtai)

Their parting is inevitable. When they finally meet again, in India (it’s complicated), their reconciliation won’t be easy in any way. They’ve already suffered separately for three years, but now they must suffer together in order to mend their relationship, because what does change people is hardship. Accordingly, these two broken, miserable people will have to figure out their massive communication issues (it always comes down to that, doesn’t it?) while simultaneously navigating their way across potentially lethal terrain during the middle of a major uprising against the British presence. [Go to Sherry Thomas’s page on the book for more on that, because she talks about the actual history behind this historical–the setting is described as vividly as any I’ve ever read, and I think indicates the author’s own level of wonkified obsession with detail and love of the language, in the best possible way.]

As if that weren’t enough, Bryony’s developed a white streak in her hair (overnight, from shock, right before she leaves him). So she’s a social misfit, older than he is, not traditionally beautiful to begin with, and has a big white streak. Oh, and I wanna say she also can’t have children, maybe. While formerly dandified Leo, by the time he meets up with Bryony in India, is bone-thin from almost seven weeks of breakneck travel, and also in the early stages of a malaria attack; he continues to suffer from that extremely unsexy illness through the better part of the rest of the book.

They’re not looking or feeling their best. They’re cranky. They’re under pressure. They have a wretched history together. And people are shooting at them. So you just know there will be fantastic sex.

I love all Sherry Thomas’s books, and they’re all wonky in their own special ways! Buy this one from the following purveyors:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Kobo | IndieBound
Random House | Powell’s Books

Posted in Certified Wonktastical, Historical Wonktastical | 5 Comments