Confessions of a Paranormal Romance Junkie

th
Come to mama, tattooed demon guy.

Chances are that someone you know is a romance junkie. This condition, which usually manifests itself in hefty consumption of novels whose covers feature the naked, sculpted male torsos of brawny Scottish lairds, sexy assassins, and badass tattooed warriors (see illustration), is more widespread that you might imagine. There are 29 million of us out there, living outwardly normal lives while secretly indulging our unseemly cravings with titles like “Dark Temptations,” or “Betrayed by Desire.”

Even more embarrassing to my family is my particular addiction to paranormal romance novels, which feature titles such as, “Dark Temptations of the Frost Giant,” and “Betrayed by the Troll King’s Desire.” My 13 year old son hates the fact that we share a Kindle account because my books show up in his library. “Ewwww! Mom! You downloaded ANOTHER naked guy book? I accidentally opened the last one and the stuff in there is DISGUSTING.”

My son is not the only one offended by Unholy Demon Troll Love. The literary world, friends, neighbors, strangers in the supermarket, even the guy reading the latest Nicholas Sparks book, all smugly belittle the Paranormal Romance genre. To the world at large, PNR occupies a spot somewhere between surfing midget porn on the internet and stalking 1980s celebrities (oh, Nancy McKeon, what’s become of you?).

How did a former editor of a high school literary magazine, aspiring teen poet, college graduate, Master’s Degree recipient and mother of three plummet to the bottom of the literary hierarchy?

It all started with vampires.

Gorgeous. Tortured. Aloof. Artfully mussed hair. Edward Cullen from “Twilight” was so much like the boys I crushed on in high school I was instantly hooked. Not only was he tragically noble and HAWT, he also had super-powers, which I’m fairly sure my high school crush boys lacked (although one of them was really good at basketball). Add into the mix the thirst for blood as a stand-in for sexual desire (“a metaphor!” crowed my inner English student) and I was hooked.

I was like you once, all judg-y and superior. Romance novels were for the unwashed masses who bought their jeans at Wal-Mart, ate Cheetos, and named their cars. I was a cum-laude graduate of a prestigious college, writer of papers such as “Ethnic Conflict in Former Yugoslavia: The Perils of Nationalism,” and veteran of various book clubs. A voracious reader, I prided myself on having worked my way through all the Penguin classics, marveling at the wit of Austen, the atmospheric rendering of the Brontes, and the tragic beauty of Hardy. I savored the maze-like plotting of Dickens and dismissed Edith Wharton as second-rate. That’s right- I was a totally pretentious book snob.

And then, one day, my curiosity got the better of me, and I picked up a copy of “Twilight” at TJMax. I only wanted to see what all the fuss was about so that I could scoff about it knowledgeably at the next book club meeting. By chapter 3, my inner scoffer went silent as I entered a blissful state I had previously associated only with Jane Austen and dark chocolate. The world fell away and I was completely enveloped in the story of the two protagonists as they each battled their mutual attraction, weathered the disapproval of their friends, and navigated the social pitfalls of a small town and its lurking, otherworldly dangers.

I was hooked.

th-1
Edward, my first paranormal dreamboat, seems a little wussy now compared to tattooed demon guy.

Soon, I discovered that there was a whole genre of darker, more explicit vampire literature for grown-ups. I lost hours to the mind-reading Sookie Stackhouse, days to the coyote shaper-shifter Mercy Thompson, and weeks to the dark, tortured demonic confections of Gena Showalter (a favorite: Aeron, keeper of the Demon of Wrath. Who knew wrath could be so sexy?).

Like any addict falling down the rabbit hole of addiction, I was constantly adjusting my parameters. Vampires, werewolves and demons were fine, but I would NEVER stoop to read books about faeries! Until I found the “Fever” series by Karen Marie Moning I never knew faeries could be so bad-ass! Books about time-traveling Scottish highlanders were completely ridiculous though…except for the “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon. And, dragons? Pu-LEEZ…until Thea Harrison changed my mind. Now, there is no supernatural creature I draw the line at. Harpies. Gryphons. Angels…I just read my first troll book the other day. And I’m not at all ashamed.

Here’s the thing: believe it or not, many paranormal romance books are Enough with the smut-shaming! Often a book with a steam cover also happened to be eloquently written and meticulously researched and plotted, featuring fully realized characters and relationships whose complexity is only enhanced by the fact that they turn into Hell Hounds or Demon Gnomes or whatever. In the spirt of non-shaming, I give you  four reasons to give PNR a chance.

1. The Kick-Ass Heroine

kate1cover
Kate is ready to go a-slayin’.

Feminists, take note: in the PNR genre, the heroine is more likely to be a bad-ass warrior who slays and dismembers the bad guys than a bland princess who stands idly by One of my favorite characters, Kate Daniels, is a trained, katana-wielding killer who calmly butchers her way through 7 books of evil, slavering monsters while negotiating the romantic advances of the Beast Lord of post-apocalyptic Atlanta.

Similarly, in the books of Amy Raby and Robin LeFevers, fierce lady assassins inevitably find love amid the poisons, knives, and moral dilemmas of their trade. Warrior, assassin, or werewolf (all three?) these women are complex, likable and often flawed protagonists who provide wish fulfillment (she can start fires with her mind! ) while still allowing us to identify with them (she’s afraid of monkeys!)

2. The Super-Hot Supermen

Strong female characters require equally strong men (or shapeshifters, alien princes, demons, etc. ) Consider this description of Aiden, protagonist of Kresley Cole’s “Dreams of a Dark Warrior:”

He had broad shoulders and muscular arms, his build as massive as a bear’s…He possessed all his teeth, and they were even and white. His sun-darkened skin made his wintry gray eyes stand out.
Today, when he’d been in his berserkrage, those eyes had glowed like storm clouds ablaze with lightning.

Not only does this guy have ALL of his teeth, but he berserks like a boss. Tell me you don’t want to read more.

3. The World Building

Many PNF series are as intricately plotted and character-rich as any Russian masterpiece, drawing inspiration from Norse, Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythologies.

“The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice.” So begins Kate Eliot’s Spirit Walker trilogy. She goes on to name-check the Celts, the “lying Romans,” and the Phoenicians while describing the birth of the universe. World creation is heavy stuff, and requires close reading and attention to detail, or you won’t know your djeliw from your factotem. Eliot’s universe is so richly imagined that you can practically smell the chamberpots and the dirigibles as heroine Cat Hassi Barahal chases her cold mage across the magical Steampunk tundra.

4. The Happy Ending

And no, I don’t mean Happy Ending in a creepy massage-parlor-under-the-bridge way. The Happily Ever After ending is crucial to the Paranormal Romance- it’s the payoff, the afterglow, the endorphin boost that mutes the brutal cacophony of real life and takes the edge off endless housework, homework frustration, burned meatloaf, dog vomit, and the fearful monotony of our inexorable march toward death. The HEA is the existential crack of the beleaguered housewife and mother.

220px-Allegiant_novel_cover
http://theartofnotwriting.tumblr.com for angry emails to Veronica Roth. I hate her!

Doesn’t the guarantee of the HEA make these books predictable? Hells to the yes! We Romance Junkies don’t like surprises! When a HEA is thwarted, usually by the gratuitous, tragic death of one of the love interests, the true RJ goes ballistic, perhaps even throwing her Kindle across the room and sending enraged emails to Veronica Roth demanding that she rewrite the ending of Allegiant OR ELSE.

Okay. So, maybe you’re not convinced. Perhaps you still believe PNR is either poorly written glorified porn, and/or escapist drivel. Porn-drivel has its place (50 Shades of Grey, anyone?) but you can read far and wide in the PNR genre and not encounter it. Now, if Christian Grey was a Beserker, or perhaps a Phillipine Aswang (see illustration below), maybe then it would have been worth reading.

The Phillipine Aswang. Jaunty, isn't he?
The Phillipine Aswang. Jaunty, isn’t he?

PLEASE FOLLOW MY BLOG BY CLICKING ON THE “FOLLOW’ BUTTON IN THE LOWER RIGHT HAND CORNER OF THE PAGE! If you like to read, please STAY TUNED for reviews of the books referenced above, plus many more rants and raves of PNR romances both new and old, YA and smut-tastic, Steampunk and Medieval, Angelic and Demonic, Dystopian and Fairy-Tales-Retold, in my NEW BLOG, http://www.bewitchedbooks.com!

Advertisements

Girl Scout Encampment: A Glamping Good Time

As I explained in my last post, I am an ambivalent Girl Scout mom at best, largely because many of their activities involve nature, which I have often found dangerous and unpleasant.

And yet, on a Saturday morning in early September,  I somehow found myself loading sleeping bags and backpacks into the back of my friend’s SUV and heading down to Camp Merrick in rural Nanjemoy, Maryland for the annual ritual of “Encampment,” where (according to the National Girl Scout website) our girl scouts would “explore leadership, build skills, and develop a deep appreciation for nature.”

I had a feeling that after two days of camping, I was going to develop a deep appreciation for air conditioning and indoor plumbing. You may be asking yourself, why would I voluntarily go to a place I might have to poop in a bucket? The reason is simple, yet terrifying: Like so many other mothers, I live in fear of the wrath of my 7 year old daughter. More specifically, I live in fear of the crazy-eyed, shrieking banshee my ordinarily docile, sweet-tempered angel morphs into when she a) is asked to do household chores, or b) feels left out. I simply couldn’t face the tearful accusations and dramatic sobbing that would surely accompany the realization that all her friends went camping without her!

And so, we arrived at the campsite in the muggy heat of late morning to get our nature on. Fortunately, there was nary a bucket in sight, as the cluster of rustic cabins boasted indoor plumbing, air-conditioning, and electricity. It turns out this kind of camping, or “glamping,” as it is derisively called, hardly involves nature at all! I was immediately cheered by the prospect.

After we checked in and received our warnings from a harried Troop Leader about not disturbing the “ground moss,” we headed to our cabins, being careful to stay on the paved path.

“I guess they are really concerned about the environmental impact to the campsite,” I ventured to my friend and fellow Girl Scout mom Margaux, as we gave a wide berth to the yellow “CAUTION” tape ringing the large grassy area in front of the dining hall. “Worried about the ground moss and all.”

Margaux gave me a blank look. “She said ground WASPS.” On cue, I heard some disturbing buzzing from behind the caution tape.

On one hand, I am not fond of wasps, but one the other hand, it did provide a more reasonable explanation for keeping off the grass, and also proved my point about the perils of nature.

Camp Merrick, besieged by ground wasps.
Camp Merrick, besieged by ground wasps.

When we arrived at the cabin, we claimed our bunks, deposited our gear, and familiarized ourselves with our surroundings. Ice-cold air wafted sweetly out of a huge AC unit by the door. Two large fans whirred overhead around industrial size light fixtures. On either side of the room stood four sturdy wooden bunks beds, topped with green plastic mattresses and sprinkled with multicolored evidence of previous campers. The graffiti ranged from inane (“I love Kenny,”) to political (“Save The ta-tas!”) to plaintive (“I need a date,”) to inappropriate (use your imagination). Already this trip was proving to be more educational for my daughter than I ever imagined.

Cabin graffiti provided some educational fun during free time.
Cabin graffiti provided some educational fun during free time.

Next, our fabulous, hardworking troop leaders Jen and Christal distributed our “Team Olaf” name tags. Having never seen the movie “Frozen,” I was confused about why our name tags featured a picture of a slightly deranged, hillbilly snowman. I could, however, appreciate the irony of this year’s “Frozen” Encampment theme, as it was one of the hottest September days on record.

What does one do at Encampment? You may be surprised. The following activities were led by enthusiastic and energetic Girl Scouts Cadettes who didn’t seem to notice the 100 degree heat, profane graffiti, or walnut-sized wasps dive-bombing their heads.  This meant our main responsibilities as parent chaperones were to complain about the heat, make snarky comments, and wait for the day to end.

Are we having fun yet?
Are we having fun yet?

YOGA

The girls giggled their way through various animal-named poses, after which they enjoyed strangely bitter snow cones flavored with either sugar-free cherry syrup or cough medicine. A sticky red film soon coated the girls clothing, shoes, and floor, making the rec hall look like the scene of a massacre littered with cone shaped cups.

ARTS AND CRAFTS

The girls developed their all-important rock-painting skills, after which they made a useful cotton-ball (“snowball”) launcher out of foam, duct tape, and a balloon. Then the older girls scouts taught them various educational songs. One particularly cheery song  seemed to be about lady who jumped out a window after her house caught fire (“Jump, lady, Jump!…Splat!”)

Watch out! She has a snowball launcher and she's not afraid to use it!
Watch out! She has a snowball launcher and she’s not afraid to use it!

DINNER

We lined up for a “Frozen” themed meal of disturbingly named “Troll Stones” in “Oaken’s Secret Yoohoo Sauce.” I was relieved to see the troll stones resembled meatballs, and were quite tasty, as far as troll stones go.

Disturbing dinner menu.
Disturbing dinner menu.

PIN SWAP

All the troops converged around the flag in the center of camp to trade pins. Amidst the cooling evening breeze and the soft buzzing of ground wasps, our girls exchanged their “Olaf” buttons for other Frozen-themed goodies, only occasionally stabbing themselves with the rusty metal pins.

CAMPFIRE  

The Girl Scout troops all gathered around a brightly burning campfire to roast..not S’mores, as you might expect, but…the American Flag. At first, this seemed to confirm my suspicion that the Girls Scout organization has a secret radical extremist agenda. I was relieved (yet also a little disappointed) to find out that a flag burning ceremony is a perfectly acceptable way to retire an old American flag. Or so they told us. In any case, someone had thoughtfully cut the flag into tiny squares, so every girl scout (and mom!) got her turn to burn a little piece of America.

Good Old Girl Scout Flag Burning
Good Old Fashioned Flag Burning
The remains of the Stars and Stripes.
The next morning

At some point during the day’s activities,  something strange happened. I started having a really good time. I stopped working on my exit strategy (hamstring injury? Heat stroke? Wasp attack?) and started truly enjoying myself. As the sweat dripped down my back during the “Frozen” singalong, I was reminded of the great lesson I learned while attending an all-women college so many years ago: when women are miserable together, friendships are forged. The muggy heat, the troll stones, the wasps, the barely controlled chaos of 200 pre-teen girls, and the surreal shock of taking part in a ritualized flag burning all combined to form a single shared experience that created a bond that would never be broken, at least until the next morning when we were rushing to get the hell out of there like the last chopper out of Saigon.

Later the next day, when we were home recuperating, I asked my daughter if she had a good time. She nodded enthusiastically.

“Would you go again next year?” I asked her.
“No.” she said promptly, and then went to reunite with her Kindle Fire. I think a weekend without technology cured her of the camping bug for good. Or maybe it was the wasps.

I’m not sure about “exploring leadership, building skills, and developing a deep appreciation for nature,” but we did have a damn good time, and in the process, developed a deep appreciation for each other. Thank you, Troop 729, for an absolutely wonderful Encampment.

I would totally go again next year. As long as there is air-conditioning.

Three Suggestions To Improve Your Girl Scout Troop Or, How Girl Scouts Can Save Us From the Future Zombie Apocalypse

I am quite possibly the least enthusiastic Girl Scout Mother ever. Don’t get me wrong – Scouting is a great and worthwhile activity. Any organization that teaches my kid how to be a better person AND supplies the world with delicious cookies is OK in my book. However, if the Girl Scouts truly want to get me on board, they need to make some changes ASAP.

1. Do Away With Patches

Iron-on, my ass. The iron, from whom I have been estranged since the Great Shirt-Melting Incident of 2002, is usually wielded only by my husband. However, his stupid job often gets in the way of his accomplishing unpleasant household tasks (how convenient!). So, it fell to me to prepare the Daisies vest last year, and things got UGLY. My attempt to iron on the patches was unsuccessful, probably because the iron hates me. My next (unsuccessful) attempt – and I am not proud of this – involved a glue stick. This led to my brilliant idea to use Gorilla Glue. I was just congratulating myself for my cleverness (Ironing is for SUCKAS!) when my daughter and I realized that the glue soaked through the fabric of the vest, making a sticky mess. And, if she hadn’t noticed glue bleeding through, it’s possible that Anna might have had a Daisy sash permanently adhered to her midsection – which would be an interesting conversation starter on the first day of 2nd grade. Or med school… On the up side, 6 of the12 patches stayed firmly attached.

Unfortunately, the six that fell off left gobs of crusty white glue behind, making the vest look like someone sponge-painted it with mucus: 

IMG_9065
           Exhibit A.

My daughter was not happy with this situation. My impassioned speech about being a ‘“vest half-full” and not a “vest half-sponge-painted-with-glue-gobs” kind of person’ fell on deaf ears. It took several rolls of scotch tape, but we managed to get through the year. Luckily, I am a person who learns from her mistakes (and constant haranguing from her daughter). I am proud proud to say that this year, I paid the 20 dollars to have the new Brownie patches sewn on her new sash at the dry cleaners:

Exhibit B: Better or Worse?
Exhibit B: Better or Worse?

All of this unnecessary angst, glue, and expenditure could be avoided by simply doing away with the patches, not to mention the uniforms. Ugly brown or green polyester vests and sashes are so 1985. In this era of Katy Perry, I propose a tastefully sequined crop top or bedazzled camisole, preferably in a shade of pink, purple, or sky blue (perhaps all three?). Instead of a drab rainbow patch, lets have the garment BE THE RAINBOW. Girls love glitter.

2. No More Camping Trips

I don’t camp. Those of you have heard the story of the Great Oregon Fiasco of 2000 know why. If you haven’t heard the story, it involves 3 pounds of cherries, a bottle of chardonnay, a suspected serial killer, and an intensely distressed colon… In the woods.

Like many parents these days, I am a child of the 80s, when my only exposure to nature was via TV in the form of horror movies set by a lake, a deserted cabin, or pretty much anywhere nobody would hear you scream. From this, I learned to associate camping trips with dismemberment, giant snakes, intelligent and power-hungry frogs, and/or crazy serial killers. In short, I am not a fan.

Besides, I like my mod-cons. My giant, soft mattress with 5-6 fluffy pillows,white noise machine, electronic reader, seven different soaps, creams, lotions, and solutions I use in my bedding ritual…it all seems like it would make for a very bulky camping trip.

I mean, nature is great and all. I like to bird watch, for example. From inside the house. Or, I might sit on the back deck, listen to the trees rustle in the breeze as I enjoy a glass of wine. Which brings me to the real issue with the whole Encampment thing..it is my understanding that one of the few things that makes camping bearable is alcohol. After a beer or two, everybody is more relaxed and less worried about serial killers (except when they have to go to the bathroom at 2 AM with the aforementioned intensely distressed colon…but that’s another story). The Scout Guide contains baseless regulations like “the Girl Scouts prohibit alcohol use” and the even more ominous “Adults should be on their best behavior.” Really? Shouldn’t we save our best behavior for civilization? Isn’t the wild where we should get all, well, wild?

I propose a two-part alternative to the traditional camping trip, which I feel offers a more contemporary take on the Girl Scout Mission. A great way to “build girls of courage, confidence and character,” would be a Hunger Games/Divergent style Competition. Instead of the bland and boring weekend of “Encampment,” I suggest the far more compelling “Ass-Kickers Academy.” This week-long event would feature lessons in self-defense, combat, archery, sword-fighting, knife throwing and other useful (and totally awesome) skills. The AKA would empower girls to “develop their full potential” by preparing them for the coming zombie apocalypse, encounters with possible serial killers, or SEAL training. If movies, teen lit and TV shows are any indication, it’s a bleak future and our girls need to be ready for it.

The second part of my alternative plan is a spa day. After a week of hard training in the field, our little ass kickers will “discover the fun, friendship, and power of girls together” by getting Chocolate Oxygen Facials and Fire Opal Balancing Stone Massages. Obviously, mothers will be included in this activity. 

3. No More Cookie Sales

Girl Scouts, I have a bone to pick with you. Why on earth in this age of childhood obesity are you still pushing addictive-as-crack, fat-filled calorie bombs on our chubby, sedentary population? They are delicious, true. However, as someone who once inhaled an entire sleeve of thin mints while hiding in a bathroom stall, I can tell you with confidence that the road to hell and self-loathing is paved with delectable, wafer-thin chocolate cookies.

Here’s a healthy and economically smart alternative: why not sell those protein shakes famous people are always drinking on TV? Or even better, why not sell the Vitamix Professional Series 300 blenders so people can make their own protein shakes? My husband and his brother first saw this amazing machine at a Costco in Columbus, Ohio. Apparently, the salesman made a delicious orange sorbet out of some kale, chia seeds, cranberry juice, a beet, and an entire unpeeled banana. That is one badass blender. Plus, at $528.95, your girl scout only has to sell one or two to make some serious coin, instead of hawking 200 boxes of Samoas and Tagalongs at $4 each on local lacrosse fields and grocery store parking lots.

Some naysayers will opine that the Vitamix is too expensive to anchor a successful fundraising effort. These people obviously don’t live in Arlington, where people won’t think twice about throwing down mad cash for a contraption that will make them healthier and does not involve playing catch with bricks at the local CrossFit Gym. Consider this comment from a customer who turned to the Vitamix 300 after being unhappy with his previous blender: “My smoothies came out with lots and lots of bits, and I end up having to do a lot of chewing.” I bet this man who is too busy to do something as pedestrian as chew his food is from Arlington, and would probably be interested in buying a second Vitamix for his home office from a local girl scout troop! At the very least, let’s make the switch from selling cookies to something wholesome and trendy like giant sacks of kale, beets, or plankton.

Call me a visionary, or call me a kale-loving, dystopian-obsessed ironing-hating weirdo. Either way, when Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low first founded the Girl Scout organization in 1912, I’m sure she intended for it to evolve with the times and the role of women in society. If we truly want our daughters to become part of the GSA’s “long history of strong, independent heroines,” let’s stop giving them cookies and start teaching them how to disembowel deranged zombies with a katana. Or a Vitamix.