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Two Hot: Two Reviews (Part 2, by me)

December 12, 2011

(Spotlights contain spoilers.  This one contains more than usual.)

I suppose I can’t live up to the hilarity that is my husband riffing on the names “Jed Calhoun” and “Ethan Blair,” but I can discuss the actual content of Cara Summers’s Two Hot and why it fails to do anything it promises AND in the meantime finds ridiculous ways of pseudo-circumventing Harlequin’s long-standing rules of conduct.

Here’s what it says on the actual back cover:

Forbidden Fantasy #2: Being desired by more than one man…

Ph.D. student Zoe McNamara can figure anything out–except her mind-numbing attraction to Jed Calhoun. The sexy, secretive man is all she can think about. So she decides to sleep with the big, blond enigma–just once–and get him out of her system for good.

Then Zoe meets tall, dark and handsome Ethan Blair, whose British accent and air of mystery could make him the next James Bond. How could she want him so badly just two days after incredible sex with Jed?

And what is she going to do when she realizes…

SHE CAN HAVE THEM BOTH?

You can see why a reader like me would be intrigued.  I’ve been reading Harlequins since I was at least eight years old (love you, Anne Stuart, but you’re next to be reviewed).  I was reading Harlequins when it was still the rule that your female lead had to be a virgin no matter what.  The idea of subverting the usual Harlequin formula thrills me, and when I found that certain chick lit authors (such as Jennifer “Please Don’t Retire, I Will Cry” Crusie) do that all the time, I defected from straight-up romance to chick lit.  Then I defected from chick lit, but that’s another story, one I’ve touched on several times here.

The thing is, I’m sick of reading books where the characters’ emotional lives don’t resemble my own.  Oh yes, I’m a happily married woman now, but I haven’t always been.  I’ve made mistakes.  I’ve followed the formula and been burned.  But then again, I got engaged to my husband six months after meeting him, so I know I’m still a product of romance novels.  I am still so very influenced by them.  But I’ve subverted them, and the romance stereotypes, in many of the choices I’ve made, and so I often look at them as “backward”–oh, I know how arrogant that sounds, don’t think I don’t.  But it’s true.  I see them as anachronistic and outdated.  Sometimes, that’s charming.  The simplicity of romance can be endearing.  Sometimes, it’s frustrating, like the blatant sexism in the late ’80s books I began with.  Sometimes, with the levels of physical and emotional abuse, it’s downright appalling.

I’ve discussed on this blog several times before the dumbing down of the romance/chick lit heroine, and the knocking down of her as well–or, really, any heroine in books, television, and movies–and how this has been occurring since Bridget Jones came on the scene.  The naivete of the ’80s heroines has given way to the utter stupidity of the modern-day protag.  The good girls are placed by godawful ones that you would never, ever want to come into contact with, let alone read at least 250 pages about.  Because the chick lit story is about the growth of the lead character, and not necessarily about her love life (although we can’t forget how important romantic connections are to the way we live our lives and view our own worth), it’s lazy writing to start with someone who’s awful.  They have nowhere else to go but up.  I feel that you can write a character making a stupid mistake without making them stupid, but the mistake for the most part needs to be emotional, rather than intellectual–or, if it’s intellectual, you have to be able to see how the person made the decision.

Now let’s get to Zoe, who I don’t care enough about to find the umlaut.  Zoe is far from the dim-witted protagonist of some of the serious gems (*cough*) that I’ve read over the years, but she’s up there.  Zoe, like many modern-day heroines, is presumed to be intelligent and yet never acts it, thus leading us to the oft-repeated phrase “show, don’t tell.”  If editors screamed this in their writers’ faces, maybe I wouldn’t hate half the books I read.

Zoe is, among other things, too dumb to find a way to stick with her job in the CIA, too dumb to realize she’s boffing the same guy in two different guises, and too dumb to realize that she’s about as personality- and interest-free as most romance heroines of late.

But my main problem isn’t with her.

Then there’s Jed/Ethan.  He’s supposed to be this super-awesome agent, and yet after faking his own death he’s hanging out WITH HIS COLLEGE BUDDY AND USING HIS REAL NAME.  Also, he’s screwing a girl in two different personas, and not telling her.

But my main problem isn’t with him, either.

My main problem is how the book deals with fantasies–not just the “forbidden” one discussed on the back cover, but in general.  When new imprints are begun, the reader is probably too smart to expect something new, but we’re promised it.  With Harlequin Blaze, this is what the writers are told to do for the readers:

The Blaze line of red-hot reads is changing the face of Harlequin and creating a continual buzz with readers. The series features sensuous, highly romantic, innovative stories that are sexy in premise and execution. The tone of the books can run from fun and flirtatious to dark and sensual. Writers can push the boundaries in terms of characterization, plot and explicitness. Submissions should have a very contemporary feel — what it’s like to be young and single today. Heroes and heroines should be in their early 20s and up. We want to see an emphasis on the physical relationship developing between the couple: fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism are needed. And don’t forget, secondary characters and subplots contribute to the richness of story and plot action we look for in a successful Blaze novel.

Are you a Cosmo girl at heart? A fan of Sex and the City or Red Shoe Diaries? Or maybe you just have an adventurous spirit. If so, then Blaze is the series for you!

(As far as I know, they are no longer taking Blaze submissions.)

I am not a Cosmo girl.  I’ve never watched more than one episode of Sex and the City, and that was in a group setting.  I’m not really sure what the Red Shoe Diaries are.  Maybe I’m the worst person in the world to be reviewing a Blaze book.  But then again, maybe I’m not.  I’m a voracious reader who likes a good romance, whether that’s paranormal or normal-normal or super-sexy (although I AM the kind of person who skims sex scenes and only looks to make sure everything seems reasonable and fair).  I may be an outlier, but I know Harlequin is looking for people like me to draw in.

They’re not doing it with this book, I have to tell you.

Let’s run a checklist for the book, shall we?

sensuous – Okay, fine, I’ll give you that, just to be considerate.

highly romantic, – No.  When you’re living in a state of constant guilt about your desire, it’s not romantic.

innovative – HELL no.

sexy in premise and execution – Premise, yes; execution, eh.

Writers can push the boundaries in terms of characterization, – AHAHAHA, no.

plot – No.

and explicitness. – I’ll talk about this in a second.

Submissions should have a very contemporary feel — what it’s like to be young and single today. – I don’t know.  Maybe I’m too old for this, but no.

Heroes and heroines should be in their early 20s and up. – Hey, she got one!

We want to see an emphasis on the physical relationship developing between the couple: fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism are needed. – HIGH LEVEL OF FANTASY.  See below.

And don’t forget, secondary characters and subplots contribute to the richness of story and plot action we look for in a successful Blaze novel. – Ugh, don’t get me started on the secondary characters, who were boring AND stupid, and more prime examples of telling rather than showing.  But this factors into the fantasy bit, so let me delve into that.

When I read the back of this book, I was intrigued.  I wondered, “Is Harlequin really doing something new?  Something interesting?  How will it be resolved?”  I discussed this with the awesome Mahasin, who said she bet that a pregnancy would resolve the two-man debate.  I didn’t think so, but I agreed it was a strong possibility, if Harlequin hadn’t changed much in the past fifteen years.

What I was looking for, what I was begging for really, was a subversion of the romance stereotypes of insta-love and soulmates and, my least favorite thing, something I call “damning the ex.”  To resolve a love triangle in romance, generally someone has to be a jerk.  You’ll see this over and over again when I start my Harlequin project next year.  So which would be the jerk, Jed or Ethan?

And yes, I knew going in that there was a possibility they’d be the same guy.  I was just hoping against it, because I wanted to see something new.

Those who know me well know that I’m what some people call “poly-friendly.”  I don’t judge people, some of them close friends, who are in multiple, ethical, honest relationships.  I know two couples who live together happily–yes, “like that”–and have been doing so for, oh, the better part of a decade now.  And no, I don’t have blinders on when it comes to this.  I’ve seen good relationships fall because “multiple” and “honest” haven’t been combined with “ethical”–or, really, “considerate.”

As someone who’s known she was bisexual from the time she was a tween, I’ve been somewhat sympathetic (after a while) toward the concept of so-called “greedy” bisexuals–bisexuals who want concurrent relationships with both genders.  The reason I’m sympathetic toward this (for lack of a better term) is because a quick glance at how relationships are perceived in society is enough to tell any reasonable person that a bisexual is basically taught they have to choose between two very, VERY different relationships: the one that society will approve, that has set rules and standards, even if they’re sometimes restrictive ones; and the one that society will shun, the one where you go in half-blind because the rules aren’t as clear, and, quite frankly, comes with its own set of stereotypes as well.  (“Men in gay relationships cheat; women in gay relationships never have sex” blah blah blah.)  You are told there are two paths, not one set that just happens to be with a partner of the same gender (or, if you want to be crude, matching parts).  The second path comes with a whole different set of expectations.

These paths are related to us as being SO different that wanting both becomes reasonable, like wanting chocolate and vanilla ice cream rather than two scoops of vanilla.  Is it as greedy–or greedy at all–to want two completely different things, or more of the same?  And, of course, can two completely different people, which means two completely different relationships (as anyone who’s been in more than one long term relationship in their lives can attest to) really be considered the same experience, just because they both have penises?  Ask me why I married my husband and didn’t stay with my first husband.  You’ll get the stories of two very different relationships, even though they’re both with men.

So yes, I had some expectations going in, even if the specter of Harlequin Tradition was looming over me.

What I did not expect to get was a bunch of sidestepping.

Summers sets up right away that Zoe has a crush on this mystery man, code named Lucifer, on whom she reported during her brief time at the CIA.  What I was HOPING, once I got that far, was that Zoe would find that one of the men was Lucifer, bang him, and get the hell over her crush to pick the more compatible, comfortable relationship.

Nope.

As my husband and I said, Jed and Ethan are the same person.  Yet Summers manages to sneak in her threesome by having Zoe daydream about being with both of them, when she still thinks they are separate people.  Daydreaming is how Summers gets her “explicit” fantasies out., not just this once, but several times.  I suppose this wouldn’t bother me as much if the characters weren’t described as completely zoning out during these fantasies–to the point where other characters are looking at them placatingly, not even like they’re bonkers, like I would.

What a disappointment, especially considering that at some of these times, the characters are WORKING, doing CIA STUFF, and other such DANGEROUS WORK.

Sigh.  Back to stupidity.  But I’m ignoring that, because I need to wrap this up soon.

It’s a cop-out to have to “sneak” explicitness in.  Threesomes are still out, in the Harlequin world, as is feeling good about your sexuality when you’re indulging in something that you wouldn’t tell your mom about.  Zoe’s guilt isn’t overwhelming enough to stop her, but it’s recurring, and it emphasizes the idea that Zoe is ONLY attracted to two men at the same time because subconsciously she realizes they are the same person.  This does not in any way relay a coping mechanism for women who ARE attracted to two men, who come up against that blatantly ridiculous and irresponsible idea that there is only one person out there for all of us.  In effect, by publishing this book, Harlequin doesn’t step forward, but rather jumps back like a nervous cat.  And I’m offended, because I can handle a subversion, and I think many people–even ones you wouldn’t necessarily think–can handle a subversion.  They can handle going outside the norm, because guess what?  There’s no norm, other than what’s in the fairy tale stereotypes of romance in the media.  Check the latest statistics on people who are in successful marriages.  Are all of them monogamous?  How are they dealing with attraction to other people?  I think you’ll be surprised at the answer–or you won’t, which means that Harlequin’s decision to back off is even more ridiculous.

Also, she is DIRT DUMB for not realizing they’re the same person as soon as he comes back with a haircut.  COME ON.

So there you go: Two Hot is too disappointing to read for someone like me, and too terrible to finish for general readers of romance.  Skip it.  SKIP IT A LOT.

PS We never did find out what “Forbidden Fantasy #1” is.  Anyone know?

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