Resistance romance has gone global. It makes sense: idealists everywhere are being squashed under the steamroller of corporate and government interests. Women suffer silently in “toxic workplaces that reward mediocre men,” to quote Naya Llamas, the heroine of What Kind of Day. These women need their HEA, too.
Take note, though: there will be no alpha billionaire to save the damsel in distress here. The “damsel” in question, Naya, is not in distress. In outrage? In frustration? Those are closer to the mark. Naya would tell Mr. Billionaire to fuck right off, thank you very much. In fact, her “rage-quit” speech to her former boss (which sherecycles on a sitting Philippine senator!) would send a lesser man spiraling into his own mid-life crisis. Naya needs a fellow idealist hero with a hot bod and a quick mind. Enter Ben Chaco, Esquire: a former speechwriter for the aforementioned senator. Ben is in a mid-career crisis somewhat of his own making, but mostly not. And he has hot abs.
Naya has an “income-generating hobby” running boutique culture tours under the name of See This Manila. Naya’s video background has helped her carve out a presence online, and her customers pay a premium to be shown her favorite exhibits, the best sunsets, and the most unlikely ice skating shows. When stuck in Manila’s notorious traffic—which, yes, is really that bad—she dispenses “mentory” advice to her younger admirers (and to Ben, who has literally jumped into her van).
I loved the tour guide (and trip fling) theme of the book, and you do not even have to know Manila to appreciate the places she takes her customers. And, if you do know Manila, the book forces you to reconsider your view on the city.
Remember that Manila was once the “Pearl of the Orient,” and what has happened to it since is not entirely its fault. You knew there would be a historical aside to this review, didn’t you? Well, this is my blog, and I am a historian so deal with it. The Americans bombed the city to bits in 1945—the necessity of which is still debated—and they did not stick around long enough to rebuild it. Instead, they gave the Philippines its independence in 1946, on schedule, and left.
Mismanagement since 1946 is a long and political story, and this part of Naya’s struggle. She rage-quits her job in official tourism because she wants to show the real Manila to foreign heads-of-state:
“So I quit because I was deployed to do touristy videos during one of the summits. And I wanted to be assigned to Manila, because I thought it would be a good chance to show the inequality, what life is really like even on the days when they don’t hide the shit from delegates traveling from the airport to wherever. I thought if I did it with some compassion, and with help from the communities themselves, I’d be able to create something and the summit would be the right platform for it. Because that’s what it’s for, right?”
“Oh, God,” Ben said, realizing where this was going. “You had a dream, too.”
Yep, What Kind of Day is the story of two dreamers. It is quintessential Mina V. Esguerra—and yet it is also enough of a departure to justify a new series. Let’s start with the latter. According to the author’s website, Ms. Esguerra did not wish to redeem the anti-hero anymore. (But she does it so well! Love Your Frenemies is one of my absolute favorites of the Chic Manila series.) True to the author’s intentions, Naya and Ben are both uncompromisingly honest, good people throughout the book—and what a relief!
Of course, this is also exactly what makes the book fit into the MVE opus so well. Ms. Esguerra takes two people who have been burned—and burned by a similarly cruel aspect of the world—and helps them find each other. To me, this has the same feel as Iris After the Incident, which you probably know I loved. (Also, Iris is going to be released as an audiobook sometime in the near future. Yay!)
Okay, Jen, but what about the sex? The sex is also classically MVE: hot, memorable, and perfectly suited to the characters. It is a little odd to say “classically MVE” since Ms. Esguerra began by writing closed-door romance, but her recent books have all had very sensual, very imaginative love scenes. Naya and Ben’s first time could be a workshop in making consent and sex-positivity zing—which, frankly, I think is just the point in a book that is about fighting the Old Boys Network. It is perfect.
Finally, as with all the #romanceclass books I have read, What Kind of Day is a smart, fast-paced, beautifully-crafted novel. This book is both on brand and a trend-setter at the same time. I would recommend it to romance readers (M/F dual-POV with strong HFN), women’s fiction readers (strong growth arc in take-charge heroine), and general fiction readers (because, honestly, it’s just a freaking good book, no matter what you like to read). Enjoy!
The RT Booklovers Convention is an industry trade show more than writers’ convention. As a result, there are more bloggers, publicists, readers, and vendors than you’ll see at an average RWA event, which takes some focus off the craft of writing in favor of the business and marketing side of things. (And there’s lots of fangirling. See my previous post.) But RT does have craft workshops, even if these tend to be author discussion panels rather than instructional presentations. Learning happens! Let me prove it to you:
Piper Huguley lead a solo workshop called “What’s in a Name?” in which she discussed onomastics, the linguistic field that studies the origins and history of personal names. She discussed considerations in naming your characters, but she went well beyond online tools—though she gave some of those, too, and I’ve added a few to my character tools site. But her sociological lessons captivated me most. For example, she talked about the history and derivation of gender crossover names. Did you know that Ashley, Beverly, Shirley, and Joyce were originally boys’ names? Many only crossed over to girls in the latter half of the twentieth century. Some are just crossing over now, like Mackenzie and Wyatt. Why? According to Huguley, names can be a symbolic armor or protection. If you have one child, and you want to give her the strongest chance at a successful life in a male-dominated society, you might give her a boys’ name. And there are “born to win” names, taken up by the African-American community when their children could not get the respect they deserved in white society. Earl, for example. Or Lloyd (for Lord). Or Piper’s relative, King Huguley. Or her character Champion Jack. Or Prince. “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” was a legal name change forced by Prince’s dispute with Warner Bros music, but Prince itself was born that way. Prince’s father had the stage name Prince, and he gave it legally to his son—Prince Rogers Nelson—because “I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do.” Shivers, right?
Alisha Rai, HelenKay Dimon, and Sonali Dev led a workshop on “Heroines: You Can Have It All.” They brought up an issue that has always been prickly to me: the “TSTL” (“too stupid to live”) criticism. Readers can be hard on heroines, especially ones who make mistakes. Yet, as HelenKay pointed out, sometimes our characters have to make the wrong choices, especially if those errors fit the character or situation. The key is to allow your heroine to be strong in other ways. Alisha talked about this in terms of “competence porn,” à la My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In that wonderful show, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is an utter mess with relationships, but she is a bloody brilliant lawyer. Actually, she is a casually brilliant lawyer because it almost seems to take no effort. She’s just that good. She puts relatively little thought into her job until she needs to save the day, and then—whoosh, she’s stunning. When the show goes back to her personal life, though, she is still a freaking mess. She’s a relatable heroine, but still one we admire (most of the time). Sonali Dev talked about a different problem: turning the reader’s knee-jerk pity into a heroine’s weapon. Instead of making her heroine Mili a stereotypical child bride, she let Mili own it. Mili essentially says, “Okay, I’m a child bride—promised but not yet married. And instead of pouting about it right now, let me use that status to get educated and do what I want to do first.” This kind of nuance is really inspiring.
Another great workshop was “Bangin’ Hot Betas” with Karen Stivali, Vanessa North, Annabeth Albert, and Tamsen Parker. They write hot, hot books—and they give good workshop, too. The big point was that beta does not mean boring. In fact, you can mine more complexity with a beta character but still get all the feels. The “let me teach him a thing or two in the bedroom” is pretty sexy, if you think about it. Betas can be more self-aware, more concerned for their partner’s needs, and more vulnerable. The authors acknowledged that pitching a beta hero is difficult, but their advice was to focus on what is awesome about the hero. Don’t highlight the beta bit—just write it that way. Like any book, get the tension and stakes high. Write it with the best dialogue and the hottest romance, and use those attributes to market the book. The reader may not even know why she loves the hero so much, but the point is that she does!
I also loved the “Historicals: Welcome to Americana” workshop, but my notes were a little more sparse because I was too awestruck to really process everything that was being said. Why? Let me tell you the panel: Beverly Jenkins (our 2018 NECRWA Master Class presenter!), Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, Joanna Shupe, Kianna Alexander, and Kate McMurray. The latter two I have not read yet, but I plan to. They talked about all sorts of issues I care about, including the need to allow for a more representative slate of characters in more varied time settings, especially in American history. Ms. Bev said that a reader once told her that she couldn’t imagine an HEA between African-Americans in the nineteenth century. Ms. Bev rightly pointed out: “Even in the toughest times, people still love, still have birthday parties, still have picnics.” So true. While we all love our Regency historicals, we have to acknowledge that the real Regency period was one engulfed in war. We don’t get that in our costume dramas, which are significantly based upon Georgette Heyer’s description of the Regency rather than real history. For example, even Jane Austen spent much of her life not in the bucolic countryside—or even in Bath—but in Southampton, a “dock town filled with public drunkenness, street prostitution, and violence.” If you, like me, appreciate a little real history thrown into your entertainment, Camille Hadley Jones and I discuss this kind of thing in our new Facebook group, History Ever After. Come on by!
There were many great reader events, but one that really stood out was the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books Reader Recommendation Party. Here’s how it went: the Bitches gave a book recommendation each—with reasons—and then we readers got a chance. Sarah Wendell came around with her mic and briefly interviewed us on what we liked and why. Here’s the thing: Sarah is funny. Correction: Sarah is freaking hilarious. I imagine that doing a podcast for so long has sharpened her quick wit, but part of it is talent, plain and simple. What fun! Those who made recommendations got extra raffle tickets. (We had each started with one, if you were keeping score.) After a bunch of book recs, raffle prizes were awarded. Then rinse and repeat. I got to give one recommendation—just one, and it was so hard to choose! But I had to pimp #romanceclass, so I chose one that had both Manila and millennial feels, so I went to one of my favorites: Mina V. Esguerra’s Iris After the Incident. There was a lot of good book noise (“oooohhh”) when I described it, so I hope lots of people bought it! If you want to know more, read my review here.
These were just a few of the offerings in Atlanta. If I did not mention a panel or workshop, I probably just could not get to it. Despite all the awesomeness above, I actually spent most of my time at marketing or industry workshops, which will be the subject of my next post. Stay tuned!
I spent the last two weeks of February on an amazing trip to the Philippines. Packing everyone I wanted to see into 14 days—plus romance events!—was a little insane, but I made the most of every minute.
I started the business end of things with an appearance at the Philippine Romance Convention 2017, hosted by the Romance Writers of the Philippines at Alabang Town Center—a mall that happens to be my old stomping grounds. I was honored to sit on the Steamy Romance Panel with Mina V. Esguerra, Georgette S. Gonzales, and Bianca Mori. These are three outstanding authors. Mina’s Iris After the Incident is such an important, sex-positive, feminist contemporary romance that I wrote a whole blog post about it. Georgette writes intense romantic suspense that tackles politics, corruption, and more. And Bianca’s globe-trotting romantic suspense Takedown trilogy is like a cocktail of Ocean’s 11 and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but with more sex. It goes without saying that this was an amazing evening.
While I was there, author Ana Valenzuela and I grabbed a coffee at Starbuck’s so we could chat. That chat eventually turned into this hugely flattering article in the Manila Bulletin, the leading broadsheet newspaper in the Philippines.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before that came out, I was able to do some awesome traveling that provided me inspiration for both my current Sugar Sun series and my anticipated second generation series, which will be set during World War II. I headed to Corregidor with three great friends: my amazing hostess and great friend, Regine; my former student and now accomplished Osprey pilot, Ginger; and Ginger’s husband, Tread, also an Osprey pilot.
Even though I have been to the island several times, even staying the night before, I find each return trip gives me new ideas. I pick up different tidbits on the tour every time. This time, in the Malinta Tunnel, I heard about the crazy parties the Americans threw at the very end, when they expected to be defeated any day. They needed to consume their supplies before the Japanese arrived, and they really needed to get out of that tunnel at night. What happened under the stars, on the beach, when no one was watching? Yep, that is romance material, if I’ve ever heard it. A celebration of life in the midst of death.
Only a few days later, I was on the other side of the channel, on the Bataan Peninsula. This, of course, is the site of the infamous Bataan Death March, where 76,000 Filipino and American soldiers were force marched over 100km without food or water. Tens of thousands died. This is not good romance novel material. But each marker we passed was a reminder of the sacrifice of others who came before.
Regine and I had gone to Bataan to see some even older history—particularly the heritage homes being preserved at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar. On the one hand, I loved this place. It is a resort made up of bahay na batos, bought and moved from all over the Philippines. And, with no other cities or villages in sight, you can almost imagine that this is what Manila looked like during the time of the Sugar Sun series—if you squint your eyes to avoid seeing the ATM machine hidden in the bottom floor of one of the houses. The guides are informative, and the location by the sea is breathtaking. And, if given the choice between having a house moved here and letting it deteriorate or be bulldozed, then the choice seems obvious. With all these homes in one place, a person can truly appreciate the proud architectural tradition of the islands.
However, there are down sides, too. First, these homes are not in their original context, to be appreciated by those who have some claim over their heritage. They are also glorified hotel rooms, rented out for exorbitant prices by the park’s creator. Unlike a national museum, this park is for profit, and it is not cheap to get to, nor stay at. Therefore, the history of the Philippines cannot be equally shared among all Filipinos. Also, the location by the sea is questionable because the salty air will accelerate deterioration. Finally, there are a dozen building projects going on at a time, and meanwhile those already built or moved are degrading. It feels a little like a resort built by someone with ADHD—once one thing is halfway done, it gets pushed aside for a shiny new toy.
But, it is beautiful. And I got to see a recreation of the Hotel de Oriente! I felt like I should be giving out copies of my novella at the door—but, alas, I did not have any with me. The building looked accurate on the outside, but there are no surviving photos of the inside, so they have improvised. And while I applaud them hiring all local craftsmen to do the ornate inlaid woodwork, this interior makes the a Baroque palace look minimalist. Still, I was thrilled to be there. It was a huge rush.
These amazing trips led up to the big event: the combined lecture of “History Ever After” at the Ayala Museum and the release of Tempting Hymn! It was such an amazing day. I talked for an hour about the history of the American colonial period, the Philippine-American War, and the Balangiga Incident. I wove in information about all my characters, even showing character boards with the casting of famous movie stars in the roles of each hero and heroine. (Piolo Pascual as Padre Andrés Gabiana was a special favorite.) I gave some special attention to the new novella, and then I signed and sold all the books I had brought with me. (One whole piece of checked baggage was just books!)
What a fantastic day, and I have to thank the whole #romanceclass crowd for coming out. You guys were amazing! Thanks to Mina Esguerra and Marjorie de Asis-Villaflores organizing the event. It would not have been possible without you. And thank you to my wonderful friend Regine, my advisor, therapist, and accountant—as well as the best hostess ever.
Regine and I spent my last evening in Manila at Intramuros at the 8th Annual Manila Transitio Festival commemorating the 100,000 dead in the Battle of Manila, 1945. Under the leadership of performer and popular historian extraordinaire, Carlos Celdran, we made wishes on the walls of Intramuros, listened to great music, ate great food, and even drank some buko (young coconut) vodka. Yum.
While much of this trip was devoted to writing, one of the truly best parts of being back was seeing my wonderful friends again, including people who have known my husband and me for over 20 years. The Philippines are beautiful, but it is the people who make this place so unforgettable. The fact that two of these people, Ben and Derek, now own three of the best bars in Manila doesn’t hurt, either!
Amazingly, I survived this whirlwind trip, but it only made me anxious for more. I cannot wait to go back. I need to write more books to justify the next trip, so off I go to write, write, write…!
In the last twenty years or so, “Cringe humor,” with its “painful laughs,” has become a popular genre of television. Think The Office, especially the British version. We watch our favorite and least favorite characters embarrass themselves for our amusement. Wait—“amusement”? Some of these shows used real people and their real names. Time Magazine said of the Da Ali G Show: “The way Baron Cohen incorporated real people into his cringe-comedy was mean and unfair, but if it hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have been so revealing—or so funny.” I imagine for those people captured on camera, though, it was not just social awkwardness they felt afterwards. It was humiliation.
Where’s the line? We all have our little embarrassing moments we would like to forget. Many of us were socially awkward at one time or another. Maybe even outcasts. Growing up is hard. But what happens when our greatest humiliation comes in young adulthood, the time of life when we are supposed to be getting our act together? How do we go on? How do we find love? This is the reason why I was originally hesitant to read what you might call “cringe romance”: romance where one or both main characters must overcome a very public shame. But these stories need to be told. I am going to review one. And I ended up writing one, too.
Writing about humiliation and redemption is hard. It is a rare subject in romance because even if readers want their heroines to be “identifiable,” who wants to feel the humiliation of the main character so acutely? (Unless it is “humiliation kink,” which, yes, is a thing, and no one writes it better than Tamsen Parker in True North.)
I finally picked up the latest in the Chic Manila series after listening to Mina V. Esguerra talk about it on the Book Thingo’s podcast. Esguerra is the leader and pioneer of the #romanceclass group of Filipino writers who innovate and entertain at the same time. I have read others in her Chic Manila series and have loved them. Because kilig (feels). I love that Esguerra is not afraid to make heroines out of her previous antagonists—like Kimmy Domingo, the anti-heroine of Love Your Frenemies. And, yay, Kimmy is in this book, too!
But Iris is not just rough around the edges, like Kimmy. She is not a difficult person. She is quite nice, actually. She has a good job helping young women get scholarships for math and science degrees. She works hard and seeks little credit for it.
But she is broken all the same. She has been utterly humiliated on a worldwide scale. Worst of all, the family who shuns her for shaming them were complicit in making her shame public. It is a real Charlie Foxtrot, as the book blurb says:
Whether she likes it or not, Iris’s life has been divided into two: Before the Incident, and After the Incident. Something very private was made very public, and since then life has been about recovering from being shamed, discovering her true friends, and struggling to find a new normal.
The “something very private” is revealed less than ten percent into the story, but if you do not want to know what it is, stop reading here.
No, really. If you don’t want to know, you need to stop reading now.
Okay. You want to know. Yes, it’s a sex tape. But that sounds more sordid than it really was. Let Iris tell it:
I had sex with my boyfriend.
And we took a video.
And it accidentally got out on the internet.
People saw it.
When Iris says “accidentally,” she really does mean it. It should not have happened. But it did.
And in the beginning, it was still an anonymous sex tape. Life could go on—until a certain member of Iris’s family tried to “clear the air” and blew the lid right off the scandal. Iris’s humiliation is especially acute in the context of Philippine society. To be “walang hiya”—shameless or unconscionable— is one of the worst insults in the Tagalog language. Because Iris’s scandal becomes the whole family’s scandal, the family blames Iris for their collective misfortune.
The full scope of Iris’s mortification may be hard for non-Filipino readers to understand. In the New Zealand television show Outrageous Fortune, a young woman named Pascalle sets up and leaks her own sex tape in order to encourage notoriety. In the United States of Real Life, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and Rob Lowe made (or remade) careers out of this kind of “fame.” But for Iris Len-Larioca, the heroine of Esguerra’s novel, her sex tape is The End of Days. And she does what you might expect: she hides.
No, she really hides. She moves out of her family home into a small one-bedroom apartment, works a graveyard shift to avoid people in the office, and takes a demotion so she can cower behind a computer instead of wooing clients in person. For a while, she makes her own baking soda toothpaste to avoid the local convenience store.
Surprisingly, though, this broken woman still has a great sense of humor. She retells her own story as if she is writing a grant application—because her job is evaluating grant applications. Bitter sarcasm, self-deprecation, and witty rejoinders abound. Iris’s voice is very Bridget-Jones-meets-Jessica-Jones. For example, in a particularly embarrassing scene on a cable car in Tagaytay, she shocks everyone with her honesty: “I’d opened the can of worms, anyway,” Iris thinks to herself. “Worms all over the place.”
Esguerra has made Iris real. And unique. While her voice can be funny, it is also determined, level, and self-aware:
Sometimes I wished that I could be that person that no one singled out, that no one used as an example or a cautionary tale.
We could only move forward.
And Iris tries to move forward. The real story is, in fact, a romance. She tries to move forward with a man just as broken as she is—and for similar reasons. Gio Mella’s sexual skeletons were plastered all over the internet, too. He is also hiding, but in a different way. While Iris wants to know everything said on the internet about her—she has even set up email alerts—Gio has no internet and no phone. The Philippines is the twelfth largest cell phone market in the world, so that essentially makes Gio a unicorn. The lack of phone provides both conflict and wonderful feels in the resolution of the book.
You should know, though, that this book is not plot heavy. No one is kidnapped. No commandos storm the compound. A little bit of scholarship and cosmetic business is conducted—great alternatives to the typical billionaire romance trope—but all of these minor adventures merely serve to put two recluses into closer and closer contact with the world. And we get to see how they fare.
And there is sex. Wonderful, hot sex.
As Sue of Hollywood News Source wrote on Goodreads: “Iris After the Incident is the most feminist & empowering romance book I’ve ever read.” This book is sex-positive. Because the sex on Iris’s tape was consensual, sex itself is not ruined for Iris—just trust. Iris will have to learn to trust Gio, but she knows that she wants to have sex with him—and how. She and Gio have chemistry. Literally:
What I liked about him being on top was I got to watch him. Watched the tension in his arms, his shoulders, the way his hips, his torso, his entire body worked for his pleasure and mine. It was hot, and one of the best ways to cap an hour-long discussion on chemistry, in my humble opinion.
Obviously, there is a future for this couple. If I called it “happy for now,” that would be accurate, but it would minimize the strength of the relationship. “Happy for now” is “happily ever after” for people like Iris and Gio. “Ever after” is too much to think about. Now is the victory. They have now, and I know they will keep having now for many, many nows in the future.
My only quibble with the ending was that Tita Ara did not get vanquished in some spectacularly vivid fashion. I am not usually a mean-spirited person, but there it is.
Iris After the Incident takes on a devastating challenge, but it wins our hearts. It is both a cautionary tale—for my students who put private information on the internet all the time—and an encouragement to persevere.
The heroine in my upcoming book, Rosa Ramos, goes through struggles similar to Iris, but in a very Edwardian era sort of way. Her mistakes were not broadcast on the internet, of course, because it is 1904. But that also means Rosa cannot hide away in the anonymity of modern society. Everyone in Bais knows her story—and if you’ve read Under the Sugar Sun, then you do, too. Rosa was left not only with a soiled reputation, but also a child to support. Adding to her problems—and everyone’s problems, really—are the issues of class and race in the American colonial period.
My hero, Jonas Vanderburg, is broken, too—but in a very different way than Gio, Iris, or Rosa. This Midwestern missionary’s entire family died in Manila during the cholera epidemic of 1902—an unexpected sacrifice that Jonas has no intention of surviving alone. But Rosa, his nurse, needs to heal him so that she can support her son and redeem her professional reputation. Neither of them want a marriage of convenience, but you can’t always get what you want.