One of the 10 Best Historical Romances with Sports!

I’m so thrilled that Sugar Moon made this list from Joanna Shupe and Frolic. There are some amazing books on that list, and it is an honor to be included. The ones I’ve not yet read are now tops of my TBR.

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Thrilled to keep this company on Frolic’s 10 Best Historical Romances with Sports.

The list celebrates Shupe’s latest release, The Heiress Hunt, featuring a tennis-playing heroine based on “Suzanne Lenglen, a Frenchwoman who dominated in the early 20th-century with her aggressive style of play,” as Shupe writes. “The unconventional Lenglen pioneered “sportswear” attire for women, drank cognac during her matches, and was unapologetic about her superior skills on the court. (Seriously, where is this woman’s biopic??!)” I’m game!

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Get your copy of The Heiress Hunt</> at your favorite vendor. Links here on Joanna Shupe’s website.

Shupe wrote why she had chosen each book for the list. Here’s what she said about Sugar Moon:

Set in the Philippines in the early 1900s, this richly layered romance is filled with vivid details of a location not often found in historical romance—including a historical baseball game! The hero, Ben, is suffering from what we now know as PTSD from the war, and he struggles with his self-worth. When he meets the fiercely independent schoolteacher Allegra, their chemistry turns this into a heart-tugging and wonderful journey of redemption.

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Yes, that’s a proposal scene! There are two baseball scenes, both related to courtship, in Sugar Moon because Ben is a dedicated player—and fortunately his sister has already brought the game to the hacienda. Everyone comes out to see if Ben can win his lady’s hand with runs. Read more excerpts from the novel here, or order it on Amazon today!

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My Favorite Medical History Podcasts

In addition to an extensive list of memoirs, biographies, and research texts on medical history that I have read for background research on Sugar Communion, I have also spent a lot of time walking the dog and listening to podcasts. Here’s a photo of Wile E. and me on the way to the trail, just because:

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Heading out to the trail and hoping we’re the only ones on it. Listening to medical podcasts during COVID is on-point.

My heroine, Dr. Elizabeth “Liddy” Shepherd, M.D., is one of many young women who became physicians or surgeons at the turn of the twentieth century. Many? Yeah! I mean, not a flood but enough to say that it was a viable career path for quite a few. In romance novels, the introduction of a female doctor character is often presented as something truly exceptional: “the only female physician in England,” one says, which is sorta lousy history. (Is it good marketing? I suppose so.) The aforementioned heroine was loosely based on the first female physician licensed in England, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson—not counting James Barry, who was assigned female at birth. By 1876, the year this other novel takes place, Dr. Anderson was already training female doctors by the class-full in the medical school she had opened—women who could have applied for licensure just like hers. Also, Scotland not England was really the “scene of the first major attempt by British women to break into the exclusively male world of medicine.”

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Check out my Pinterest pages for all my inspirations and visual research. Liddy will grow up in a medical family: her father and two brothers are both physicians of the eclectic school and operate a hydrotherapy sanitarium (think Kellogg‘s Battle Creek sanitarium for more frugal customers). She will go against her family’s wishes—not in becoming a doctor but in studying the new microbiological, laboratory-based field, which they regarded as a threat.

Women in the US probably had an easier road, with several coeducational and women’s medical schools existing in the Gilded Age, especially in the midwest. At the University of Michigan, for example, women made up a quarter of the class. The school turned out country doctors—a difficult, smelly career that these Gibson girls were welcome to try. Michigan was a better school than most, but in general medical education was not really stellar for either men or women. For example, there were no written examinations at Harvard Medical School at the beginning of the Gilded Age. None. In fact, that would have been impossible, one professor complained, because half of his students “could barely write.”

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Ohio Medical University was one of the predecessor institutions of the eventual Ohio State University Medical School, and the affiliated Protestant Hospital would eventually become Riverside Methodist Hospital. This original campus was at Goodale Park. Postcard courtesy of Historical Reflections, the Ohio State Medical Heritage Center Blog.

During the Gilded Age, doctors went from being considered “butchers” and “bleeders” to people who could actually diagnose what was wrong with you. Obviously, this is a great advance—though, before antibiotics and safe anesthesia, odds on treatment, care, and recovery were still not great.

It was the improvement in the status of doctors that led conservative elements of American society to decide that medicine was not an appropriate career for women, often because a woman doctor would be taking a “good job” from a man. The publication of the Flexner Report in 1910 is credited with creating the modern scientific medical school system in the US, but it also directly or indirectly caused the closure of many medical schools for women and African Americans. Those that had been coeducational reduced their admission of women, partly because they had a rise in male applicants. One study calls an unintended consequence of Flexner’s report “the near elimination of women in the physician workforce between 1910 and 1970.” It is the post-Gilded Age lack of women in medicine that makes us think that women have always been uniformly shut out of the field.

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Sugar Communion’s heroine, Dr. Elizabeth “Liddy” Shepherd, as inspired by an 1896 fashion plate at the Met. (She will borrow the dress.)

(Side note: Johns Hopkins, the model of a modern medical school for Mr. Flexner, only managed to operate because of the patronage of four women: Martha Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Elizabeth King, and Mary Gwinn. According to Johns Hopkins: “They would raise the $500,000 needed to open the school and pay for a medical school building, but only if the school would open its doors to qualified women. Reluctantly, the men agreed.” Unfortunately, the legendary founder of internal medicine at Hopkins, Dr. William Osler, was less enthusiastic about the role of women in the field, and the numbers of female students would dwindle before growing again decades later.)

My character Liddy needs to be a good doctor, yet one appropriate to her time period. I had to understand the world of medicine she was a part of. Better than studying it, I had to immerse myself in it. For that task, I did use some good books, but mostly I listened to podcasts. Let’s talk about a few of those:

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Bedside Rounds

I happened upon Bedside Rounds first and have since listened to every single episode. Dr. Adam Rodman is engaging and informative—so informative, in fact, that members of the American College of Physicians can earn Continuing Medical Education (CME) and Maintenance of Certification (MOC) credit for just listening to these episodes and taking a quick quiz! But, trust me, we general listeners need not worry about the test, nor are we left behind. Dr. Rodman’s intention was to model his podcast on Radio Lab, and his delivery is just as compelling and digestible (health-related pun?) as that popular program. There were times when I did backtrack 15 seconds or so just to let some point wash over me a second time, but keep in mind that I was taking mental notes for my book. A casual listener can easily stay on pace, though Rodman doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. His presentations do have lighter moments but never get silly. Listening changes the way you view medicine, mostly by making you realize how young the field really is. (Note: The COVID-related episodes, including an in-depth treatment of previous coronaviruses and the 1918 flu, are very good.)

This podcast will kill you

Two immediate advantages of This Podcast Will Kill You are (1) the incredibly impressive epidemiologist-and-disease-ecologist-presenter-duo, Erin Welsh, Ph.D. and Erin Allmann Updyk, Ph.D.; and (2) the structure of each episode into separate segments on biology, history, and modern epidemiological issues related to each chosen disease. (They also have a Quarantini—or, if you prefer, a non-alcoholic Placeborita—for each episode, and this was before we were all quarantining.) “The Erins” (their label, though I prefer “Dr. Erins”) have just begun their fourth season, and that is a lot of episodes to catch up on, but you will be glad you did. Until I listened to TPWKY, I did not truly understand sickle cell disease, for example, or dengue—not even while I lived in the Philippines, which is embarrassing.

The Dr. Erins deal with diseases that other podcasts do not cover, like rinderpest, the bovine form of measles, which will have to be another glossary post on this blog because it comes up a few times in my books. (The Philippines lost 90% of their carabao population during the Philippine-American War period, which added greatly to the suffering of the people.) TPWKY also has episodes on cholera, malaria, and other diseases that have made an appearance in Under the Sugar Sun and, in particular, Tempting Hymn. Upcoming in Sugar Communion, TPWKY has been instrumental in my understanding of syphilis (don’t worry, I will stick to the chronotope), as well as smallpox and the history behind vaccinesaspirin, and caffeine. Relevant to the whole nineteenth and early twentieth century periods, there are episodes on typhoid fever and yellow fever and so much more! The more I listen, the more I love this podcast. I think they are having lots of (appropriate) fun too.

(Note: TPWKY also put out a series of excellent COVID episodes, as you might expect. They are broken down by different facets of the pandemic, along with a December 2020 update.)

the history of medicine

I have only listened to the first half of the first season of The History of Medicine podcast, but what I like about it is the deep dive into a narrative history of one big medical invention at a time. The first season is all about antibiotics—yay, penicillin! The show on plague (Yersinia pestis) is an excellent short backgrounder for all history teachers. A final advantage is that each episode here is very short. A possible disadvantage is that host and producer Kirby Gong is not a practicing physician—he only (ha!) has a master’s degree in biomedical engineering—but, actually, I call his perspective an advantage. He investigates medical inventions in a more procedural way. This podcast is the lens of an engineer, and I find that fascinating.

this won’t hurt a bit

This Won’t Hurt a Bit was a lot of fun, but sadly you will quickly run out of episodes. The two ER physicians who are the main hosts here, Dr. Mel Herbert and Dr. Jess Mason, are so busy with saving lives and producing other educational modules for ER docs that they are not actively creating many new releases. (Note: They do have a few COVID episodes that I have not gotten to yet. I am more interested in everything non-COVID right now. Go figure.) Though these doctors are not exclusively focused on history, usually each episode touches upon the historical approach to a disease or treatment in some way. They also teach you a lot about being a good patient, including when you might want to go to a hospital yourself! Dave Mason, Jess’s non-MD husband, is also one of the hosts, and he provides banter and asks the questions you really wanted to know. What I appreciate about Dave, though, is that he is not entirely silly, and he does not derail Mel and Jess when they are delivering information. This podcast is very well produced and engineered, with additional asides and definitions that you appreciate not dread.

sawbones

Sawbones is probably the most popular podcast of all the above, at least by the size of the live audiences that they have performed in front of (pre-quarantine days). This podcast is billed as “A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine,” and that is because the show is based around the relationship of the medical host, Dr. Sydnee McElroy, and the comic relief, her husband Justin McElroy. (And they published a book too!) Most of the background medical history research is done by Sydnee—or maybe I’m underestimating Justin?—and fortunately she brings her A-game. Her episode on hydrotherapy was quite useful for my research. Dr. McElroy is also living and practicing in Huntington, W.V., which is where my grandparents and aunt lived (and therefore I spent a lot of time growing up)—and I feel connected to the McElroys that way too. (Surprise, surprise, they have several COVID episodes that I have not listened to yet, and they have also done an important set of podcasts on the history of medical racism inspired by recent protests.)

[Edited to add: The most recent episode on “Physician Burnout” is essential listening for all of us, physicians and patients alike. If you work in another “helper” profession, there are many parallels you will relate to.]

[just added!] maintenance phase

Maintenance Phase, a podcast that bills itself as “Wellness & weight loss, debunked & decoded,” started as a friend’s recommendation. She suggested the “Olestra” episode because I have family members who were involved in that indigestible chapter of history. This show has quickly become one of my favorites for general listening, though. I am one of those people who have been constantly in one diet cult or another my whole life, and counterprogramming is a challenge. The hosts of this podcast are not just scientifically informed, they are so much fun to listen to. In terms of medical history, their “Snake Oil” episode is one of my absolute favorites.

[just added!] the curious clinicians

The Curious Clinicians is sometimes too much for me, the writer who had not taken biology since freshman year in high school. This podcast is hosted by doctors and lab researchers for a similar audience, and so they do not explain every term or concept for the non-biologists in the room, and I recommend that we humanities folk out here choose our episodes wisely—but not shy away altogether. One episode that is amazing for everyone, especially if you are a foodie, is: “Episode 9: Why is umami so delicious?” A runner-up is “Episode 4: Why did Van Gogh paint with so much yellow?” Currently, I am learning about how fevers are actually useful, which is why almost all animals and even plants use them to fight infections!

stuff you missed in history class

For a history podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class touches on medical topics a lot. There is even a good episode on the Flexner report, mentioned above. I think this is because the hosts, Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson, show a real concern for the daily lives of past people. One of their other stand-out episodes for me was on the “Orphan Trains,” which is a footnote of history you might also see in Sugar Communion. [Update: I don’t know anymore. I have to do a lot of cutting.] There is a deep backlog that I plan to dive into once I’m finished with some of my medical questions.

the others you see on my player

There are more podcasts that I have not yet gotten around to, like the History Chicks, the Revisionist History podcast, and This Land. Other titles are related to my professional interests. I highly, highly recommend the first season of Blowback about the Iraq War. I do not think that I can say that enough times. There are other podcasts in my favorites that I have listened only to a few episodes of, like Casenotes. (Nope, not the true-crime podcast, but the medical history one. It is a fortnightly podcast from the Physicians’ Gallery at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Essentially it is just the audio of lectures given by doctors and epidemiologists for other highly-degreed people. It can be very good, depending on the speaker, but it is like listening to a conference, not a highly-produced podcast.)

You may have also noticed Book Thingo on my Stitcher account because it’s the best romance podcast out there, and I’m not just saying that because they were willing to talk to me. Kat Mayo is also the originator of the #UndressAndres hashtag, so I owe her a lot. [Edited to add: Did you know I was interviewed for a podcast on Balangiga too? Check it out!]

If you know of more stuff I should be listening to—especially anything relevant to Sugar Communion—please let me know. My dog always needs walking.

What Kind of Day: Resistance romance gone global

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.

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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 she recycles 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).Location-9-Intramuros

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.

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The destruction of the old Spanish walled city of Manila, or Intramuros, after the Battle of Manila, 1945. Uncredited photographer from the Office of the Surgeon General.

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.

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Sunset along Roxas Boulevard in downtown Manila. Photograph by Rolandave Bola used under Creative Commons License 2.0

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!

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Featured image is a trilogy of sorts: Iris After the Incident builds upon characters introduced in Love Your Frenemies, which builds upon a character you love to hate in My Imaginary Ex (that is also in this three-book set).

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!

Mogul and the Chinese Exclusion Act: An Interview with Joanna Shupe

Award-winning author Joanna Shupe writes the men of Edwardian era New York like no other. While some are born to the Knickerbocker Club set, others are self-made titans of industry. But whether they are from Five Points or Fifth Avenue, they are all swoon-worthy. In Mogul, one will battle a real historical injustice: the racist immigration laws of the late nineteenth century.

She never expected to find her former husband in an opium den.

Thus begins Mogul, Shupe’s last book in the Knickerbocker series. Calvin Cabot, the son of humble American missionaries in China, has grown up to become one of the most influential men in America. Even with his lucrative newspapers and powerful friends, though, can he find a way around one of the worst laws of the Gilded Age—the Chinese Exclusion Act—to reunite a friend’s family?

In this post, Joanna Shupe answers our questions about the Chinese Exclusion Act and how she came up with the idea to work such substantive history into the conflict of her novel.

Interview with Joanna Shupe author of Knickerbocker Club series of Gilded Age historical romance

What was the Chinese Exclusion Act, and how will it affect your characters?

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, signed into law by President Arthur, severely limited the ability of Chinese men and women to enter the United States. It’s the most restrictive immigration policy the U.S. has ever had to date and wasn’t repealed until the early 1940s.

So why were Chinese immigrants singled out? In the 19th century, America was undergoing a massive transformation. The Gold Rush and the railroad expansion led to the need for cheap labor, and many Chinese immigrants (mostly men) were able to find jobs here. Gradually, anti-Chinese sentiment increased, polarized by a few politicians who used the Chinese immigrants as excuses for why wages remained so low. Their solution was to call for the banning of any Chinese laborer, thereby freeing up those jobs for American workers.

Starting in 1882, no Chinese laborer could enter the United States—and it was nearly impossible to prove you weren’t a laborer. Only diplomatic officials and officers on business, along with their servants, were considered non-laborers, so the influx of Chinese immigrants came to a near standstill. They also tightened the rules for reentry once you left, which meant families were separated with little hope of ever reuniting.

How effective were the Chinese Exclusion Acts at excluding the Chinese? For the last half of the 1870s, immigration from China had averaged less than nine thousand a year. In 1881, nearly twelve thousand Chinese were admitted into the United States; a year later the number swelled to forty thousand. And then the gates swung shut. In 1884, only ten Chinese were officially allowed to enter this country. The next year, twenty-six.

— “An Alleged Wife:
 One Immigrant in the Chinese Exclusion Era” by Robert Barde, Prologue Magazine, National Archives, Spring 2004, Vol. 36, No. 1.

Mogul is set in 1889, and circumstances have separated the hero’s best friend from his wife, who is still back in China. His best friend is African American, so they decide to tell politicians and the government that she is really the hero’s wife. This presents a problem when the hero falls in love with—and impetuously marries—the heroine of the story.

Racist anti-Chinese cartoons from Australia and United States illustrating Chinese Exclusion in Joanna Shupe historical romance novel Mogul.
Racist illustrations from Australia and the United States.
This sounds like a pretty sobering piece of history. What inspired you to use the Exclusion Act as a central plot line in Mogul?

I started with this idea that my hero would be discovered in an opium den in New York City, so that was where my research began. I didn’t remember the CEA from my history classes, so I was floored when I discovered it. It’s tragic and racist, and yet seems still so relevant today.

As romance novelists, we love to find conflict for our characters. I thought the CEA might be an interesting way to drive the story forward. I wanted to both highlight the xenophobia of the CEA and use the forced familial separation to craft the plot.

Anti-immigration illustrations and cartoons about Chinese Exclusion Act for interview with Joanna Shupe author of Gilded Age historical romance
From left: illustration of 1880 anti-Chinese riot in Denver; poster celebrating the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act; photo of Chin Quan Chan and family at the National Archives.
What kind of research did you need to do on the act itself and on the Chinese-American community in general? Do you have any sources that you recommend for students and researchers?

I read quite a bit online about the CEA and the effects of the legislation. The 19th century Chinese-American community was fascinating to research. A good friend of mine is Chinese-American, and I peppered her (as well as her family) with lots of questions about the language and culture. They were all very patient and helpful.

I used mostly archives of The New York Times for tidbits about Chinatown, opium, and the Tongs, which is how I saw a mention of the game fan tan and began researching that. As with most historical research, you can fall into a rabbit hole pretty easily because it’s all so fascinating.

Uncle Sam lodging house anti-immigration cartoon from Puck leading to Chinese Exclusion Act focus of Mogul by Joanna Shupe historical romance author
Centerfold of “Uncle Sam’s Lodging House” from 7 June 1882 edition of Puck, accessed at the U.S. Library of Congress.
In a genre that some claim is about “escapism,” did you encounter any resistance to using this real history as a conflict in your book—either from editors, publisher, or readers?

I didn’t receive any resistance about this storyline, per se, but I’ve had readers tell me that they won’t read any historical set in America. The reason given is they can’t “romanticize” it the way they can with British history.

While I understand what they’re saying—after all, we’ve lived and breathed American history in school since Kindergarten—I don’t agree. We can’t assume we know everything in our history so well that we can’t learn something new or enjoy a compelling story. There’s so much history that isn’t taught—or isn’t taught well—and looking into the past gives us the clearest view of where we are today.

The Gilded Age is one of our finest eras…but also one of our nation’s low points. In each of the Knickerbocker Club books, I’ve tried to highlight some of the issues and problems as well as the opulence and wealth.

Thank you to Joanna Shupe author of Gilded Age historical romance Knickerbocker Club

 

Iris After the Incident: Love Post-Scandal

We’ve all been there. Or have we?

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.

The Chic Manila series and more can be found at Mina’s website.
The Chic Manila series and more can be found at Mina’s website.

Mina V. Esguerra’s Iris After the Incident

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 character Pascalle West of New Zealand’s addictive show Outrageous Fortune uses public nudity and a sex tape to launch what she hopes is a Kardashian-sized career.
The character Pascalle West of New Zealand’s addictive show Outrageous Fortune uses public nudity and a sex tape to launch what she hopes is a Kardashian-sized career.

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.”

The cable car at Tagaytay Highlands. You would not want to be trapped in here with your worst enemy—or your boyfriend’s ex.
The cable car at Tagaytay Highlands. You would not want to be trapped in here with your worst enemy—or your boyfriend’s ex.

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.
Good luck.
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.

Tempting Hymn, novella 1.5 of the Sugar Sun series

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.

Character board for Tempting Hymn.
Character board for Tempting Hymn.

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:

I will leave you with this poem by Barbara Jane Reyes, “To Be Walang Hiya.”
Poem by Barbara Jane Reyes.

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).