I’m leaving in two days for the Philippines!…snowstorm permitting. Then, again, it’s New England. We’re used to this crap. We have four seasons up here: winter, more winter, mud season, and construction.
For those of you who are under the sugar sun in the Philippines (see what I did there?), I can’t wait to see you! Where? I’m glad you asked. I have two public events planned:
First, I will be on the steamy romance panel of Romance Writers of the Philippines RomCon at Alabang Town Center on February 19th! Starting at 3pm, Bianca Mori, Georgette Gonzales, Mina V. Esguerra, and I will be talking about our deliciously naughty novels. We will answer all your questions—ALL of them. If you’re too shy to ask something, find me afterwards. I’ve taught health and human sexuality to teenagers for almost 20 years. It is very hard to embarrass me.
Second, I will be giving a talk called History Ever After at the Ayala Museum on February 24th at 2pm. It’s sort of a mix of history and fiction. Don’t worry—I’ll tell you which is which…most of the time. I will also be talking about my latest novella in the Sugar Sun series, Tempting Hymn, which releases that very day! Real events write the best fiction, don’t you think? Mina will be there, as well, encouraging you to ask me the tough questions. (See disclaimer above. Bring ’em on!)
Real history writes the best fiction in any genre. The unusual, precocious, and even dangerous heroes and heroines of real life are the ones who inspire us to start typing. But how do you write happily ever after when your audience knows the next war is just around the corner? How do you walk the line between romancing history and romanticizing it?
As historian and author Camille Hadley Jones posted on Facebook: “I’m finding [writing] difficult because I don’t want to ‘escape’ into the past, I want to confront it—with a HEA of course—yet I know that’s not what’s many readers seek from [historical romance].” Maybe not, but I am right there with her on “confronting history.” That is why I write my books set in the American colonial Philippines. It is why I put Javier and Georgie in the midst of the 1902 cholera epidemic in chapter one ofUnder the Sugar Sun.
Advice often given to authors is: “Don’t underestimate your reader.” Don’t gloss over the inconvenient, gritty truth just because you think your readers cannot handle it. Use it to create real characters and real conflict—but make sure that no matter how dark the dark moment, love will overcome all.
This is the subject of my talk “History Ever After” at the Ayala Museum, Makati City, on February 24, 2017, from 2-5pm. With the help of Mina V. Esguerra of #romanceclass, I will answer questions about how I balance courtship and calamity in my Sugar Sun romance series, set in the Philippine-American War. Hope to see you there!
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.
I look forward to sharing this story with you next month. Stay tuned for news. And, until then, read Iris After the Incident, the whole Chic Manila series, and the rest of the #romanceclass collection. I will leave you with a poem:
Featured image is a trilogy of sorts: Iris After the Incident builds upon characters introduced in Love Your Frenemies, which in turn redeems a character you love to hate in My Imaginary Ex (pictured here in a three-book set).
“So this book I was saving for the long weekend? Readers, I just finished it. WHY DID I READ IT SO FAST?…Pretty sure Allegra will be my favorite heroine this year.” (★★★★★ review by Kat of BookThingo on Twitter and Goodreads)
“…this richly layered romance is filled with vivid details of a location not often found in historical romance…” (Bestselling author Joanna Shupe)
“I cared intensely for Allegra (Allie), a young woman who knows what she wants but not how to get it, and Ben, who doesn’t believe he deserves to have anything at all….Ben, a curmudgeon of an opium addict who I instantly disliked in Sugar Sun, is transformed through some sort of writerly witchcraft into a sympathetic character I couldn’t help but root for.” (★★★★★ review by Alexa Rowan on Goodreads)
“These characters were so vibrant!…The portrayal of women—and Allegra in particular—uplifts and inspires…Sugar Moon sparkles with wit and romance…” (Michaelene M.’s review in Historical Romance Magazine)
“Smart, engaging, and unspeakably naughty.” (★★★★★ review on Amazon)
Ben and Allegra’s story was “on a completely different level.” (Joy Villar’s review on Twitter)
Read Sugar Moon for free on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited.
A- and Desert Isle Keeper from All About Romance: “If you like underrepresented settings, social class conflict, intercultural romance, working class characters, or just damn good historicals, the Sugar Sun series is one to get into. I’m certainly developing a sweet tooth!”
“Reading this book feels like a spoon gliding through a custard dessert.” (Phebe on Goodreads)
“Tempting Hymn manages to give adequate breathing room to the harsh historical realities of American colonial rule in the Philippines, while delivering a romance that is sweet, realistic and – above all – emotional….Hallock doesn’t pull any punches in Tempting Hymn, with either the romance or the historical detail. She does her setting and her characters justice, delivering a story that is raw and unflinching, but never too dark, because it has an engaging and touching romance at its core. [And] all the sex scenes here are insanely hot, just like in Under a Sugar Sun.” (Dani St. Clair, Romancing the Social Sciences)
“This novella does a hell of a lot of work between the lines. It’s actually breathtaking.” (Kat at BookThingo, posted on Twitter)
“The pairing here is American man/Filipino woman and that is a tricky, sensitive trope…but it’s handled with deft and care. And dignity.” (Mina V. Esguerra, author of Iris After the Incident, reviewed onFacebook)
“…the first love scene between Jonas and Rosa is a master class.” (Bianca Mori, author of the Takedown trilogy, reviewed on Goodreads)
“If you’re looking for a meaty historical romance that will transport you somewhere you’ve never been, Jennifer Hallock’s books…are must-reads.” (Courtney Milan, NYT bestselling author of The Duchess War.)
“Intensely absorbing…the charged political climate of the day is drawn with refreshing nuance.” (Laura Fahey review for Historical Novel Society)
“Two pages in and I was utterly hooked. I sensed the voice of a confident writer and spied the shorelines of a diligently-researched world. I finished it this weekend, hungry for more.” (Bea Pantoja, blogger)
“It will take me a few days to recover from reading Jennifer Hallock’s beautifully written novel. It was vivid, funny, unflinching, poignant, and sexy…. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Georgie and Javier.” (Suzette de Borja, author of The Princess Finds Her Match, reviewed on Facebook)
“Oh my god this book!…And I’m usually not into the high-stakes romance because my heart doesn’t want to handle it, but this guy…” (Mina V. Esguerra, author of Kiss and Cry and the Chic Manila series).
“It’s a perfect read for those who love their romance with a little more plot, and for history buffs who want to see a different perspective on the Philippines.” (Carla de Guzman, Spot.ph on “10 Books That Will Take You Around the Philippines”)
“…Under the Sugar Sun was also just a great romance, the kind that makes you feel squiffy in the stomach when you remember it at odd moments during the day…grand in scope in the same way old-school romances were, but with a very modern presentation of race, class and gender.” (★★★★1/2 review by Dani St. Clair of Romancing the Social Sciences)
Praise for Hotel Oriente, the prequella novella to the Sugar Sun series:
“The strength of this book, aside from the lyricism with which it describes Manila in what was arguably its heyday, is the intimacy between Della and Moss.” (Five-star review from Kat at Book Thingo)
“. . . a quick but delightful read. I loved that the plot played on a real profiteering scandal that occurred at the Hotel de Oriente, but I was equally intrigued by Hallock’s heroine.” (Erin at Historical Fiction Reader)
“I loved this book. It’s got an easy, fluid style that’s both readable and vivid.” (Author Erin Satie)
“…a stellar novella…[with] political intrigue, a sexy hard-working hero, and fascinating details about early 20th century Philippines. Her stories are beautifully-written and painstakingly-researched.” (Penny Watson, author of A Taste of Heaven, reviewed on Goodreads)
Find Hotel Oriente at Amazon as a standalone novella, or grab it as part of the Romancing the Past anthology wherever you purchase your ebooks, starting September 15, 2021.
The Sugar Sun series an epic family saga of love and war at the beginning of the twentieth century. Books are listed below in reverse-publication order, starting with the latest releases first. This series does not need to be read in order, however, and all are interconnected-yet-standalone happily-ever-afters.
Jennifer Hallock spends her days teaching history and her nights writing historical happily-ever-afters. She has lived and worked in the Philippines, but she currently writes at her little brick house on a New England homestead—kept company by her husband, a growing flock of chickens, and a mutt named Wile E.
Jennifer is available for speaking engagements, interviews, and appearances. She is also happy to speak to reading and writing groups via Zoom.
The best thing to come out of writing my Sugar Sun series—other than getting these characters out of my head and onto the page—has been connecting with the #romanceclass community. This is a group of Filipino contemporary, new adult, and young adult authors brought together by the indie publishing pioneer, Mina V. Esguerra (@minavesguerra).
When I first picked up the December 2015 issue of Romance Writers Report, it hit me right in the face: “Romancing the Globe: Filipino Romance,” by Alyssa Cole (@AlyssaColeLit). Cole profiled four authors: Esguerra, Marian Tee (@authormariantee), Ines Bautista-Yao (@Inesbyao), and Bianca Mori (@thebiancamori). I cold-called all of them (or “cold-Facebooked”…whatever), and they were soooo nice. They spread the word in their very well-connected web of writers and readers and, all of a sudden, I had a network of people who understood why I was so obsessed with a Filipino sugar baron and an American schoolmarm. (And a priest, too, but he’s book three. That apple will take some time to fall from the tree.) I also developed a very long TBR pile, at which I am still chipping away.
Just because these writers are nice, though, don’t underestimate their ability to get things done. Just as five women founded RWA in 1979, so Esguerra created #romanceclass in 2013. Eleven of her first 100 students published full-length novels. Soon #romanceclass grew into a lifestyle. The group now puts together classes, publishing support, podcasts and videos, book fairs, book launches, live performances, a stock photo service, meet-ups (last Sunday was April Feels Day), book signings, poetry readings, and so much more. Mina has even organized a full scholarship for 12 students at the Philippine Normal University! (She meant to sponsor two, but generosity from the larger #romanceclass community rounded that number up to a full dozen.) In the midst of organizing all this, Mina manages to write, as well. I’m not sure how, but here’s a Dear Author review to prove it.
With American readers clamoring for more diverse reads, I wanted to spread the reach of these talented writers. For some, their primary market is already in the United States, but you may have missed a few of the others. And, if so, you are missing out. To prove that, with the generosity of #romanceclass authors, I’ve assembled a Mabuhay Love basket giveaway at the New England Chapter of RWA’s Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference next week! That’s April 29-30, 2016, at the Boston Marriott, in Burlington, Massachusetts.