SBD: find your tropes here!

For SBD, a review of a category-like gay romance I read over the weekend.

Title: Change of Tune

Author: J.M. Cartwright

Publication information: © 2010, published by Torquere

Source: I believe I acquired this book as a giveaway or contest.

While sorting through the various apps on my phone last week, I found this book saved in Bluefire; at some point I acquired the book and uploaded it. New book!

Johnny Rayne has had enough – enough of being at the top of the rock music industry for the last decade, enough of constant touring and recording. He wants something more — just something very different. Moving to a farm in West Virginia, Johnny meets Sheriff Virgil Grissom on his first morning in the mountains.

The sheriff challenges Johnny in a multitude of ways – with overt machismo, disdain for Johnny’s musician past, and all-around know-it-all-ness. The two men clash continually, and Johnny resists succumbing to the sheriff’s brash charm until Grissom forces him to admit some very basic truths. One: Johnny’s definitely attracted to men. Two: Johnny’s definitely attracted to Grissom. And three: Johnny’s definitely going to enjoy every moment of it.

This is essentially a coming out story. Johnny has spent the last 15 years building a career in the popular music industry, recording albums and touring with his band. But he’s begun to feel that his life is empty and he wants more, so he chucks it all and movies out to the boondocks. (I use that word with affection, being a native of the boondocks myself.) Among the things Johnny’s dealing with are his desire for a family and children of his own and his sexuality.

What did I think? I hovered on the verge of discarding this book as a DNF nearly the entire way through it for a variety of reasons.

Reason #1: Was the author trying to see if s/he could fit every single romance novel trope or cliché into a single book?

  • Cities are evil and country living is best, or so the narrator has determined. His disconnect from reality and family and even his own inner self is a function of and a symbol of urban decay! Only by fleeing to the country and living right is he able to find his true self and his One True Love! And country living is wonderful – everyone in the small town loves Johnny and would never speak to the press about him and is completely comfortable with the fact that 1) he is gay and 2) he’s sleeping with the county sheriff who has suddenly stopped being on the DL.
  • Professional and/or commercial success is similarly evil.
  • Having babies and raising children is the only true, fulfilling vocation.
  • Being a soft touch means you’ll be a good parent. And being a sucker enough to take multiple pets from the pound means you are ready, no you deserve, to be a parent of a human child.

Reason #2: The artificial reinforcement of stereotypical gender roles.
The feminization of the hero in gay romance. Yes, Johnny is a man questioning his sexuality. Are there femme gay men out there? Absolutely. But in every way other than his dangly bits, he’s characterized with traditionally feminine attributes. Biological clock ticking in the mid-30s? Check. Unable to resist the cute? Check. Obsessed with labels and clothes and decorating? Check. And Johnny’s a bottom, of course. One who likes to be spanked by his physically larger lover. Because a gay man who likes clothes and kids can’t possibly be a top.  Because in genre gay romance, the hero with all the traditionally masculine roles is the top, while the hero with any feminine characteristics must be a bottom.*

His uber-butch boyfriend is the county sheriff, a suitably macho profession.  He physically intimidates Johnny when they first meet, pushing into his space and looming.  And he expresses his concern for Johnny in typically male gender role ways, by worrying about his security and safety, warning him of potential danger in the area and installing security measures in Johnny’s home.  He even gives his little woman a baby (or two), just like a good husband should.  The gun in his holster or on his belt is symbolic of his penis, of course.

Worse, one of the few female characters describes herself as not being a “regular gal” because she enjoyed her profession more than she enjoyed being a parent. In Romanceland, even Gay Romanceland, only miserable, heartless bitches prefer work to home, you know.

Reason #3: The average writing interspersed with clunky, awkward phrasing. How many times did “big penis” appear in the text? I’m afraid to do a search to find out. Suffice it to say more than enough. I don’t expect sparkling prose with every book, but if the storytelling isn’t gripping me then the writing must. Sadly, that didn’t happen here.

The lack of any external conflict meant the book moved very slowly. If I wasn’t frustrated/bored as a reader with the stereotypes and tropes being used, this might have seemed like a sweet, hot romance. Instead it just felt like nothing new or fresh.

I’ve got questions about some of the plot points, too. First, Johnny was a rock star; yes, playing straight was probably easier, but as someone outside the music industry, rock star sexuality has always seemed excessive and bisexuality (if not homosexuality) always seemed…acceptable and a way of exhibiting edge. Is that just my interpretation? Second, the kids being delivered by the boyfriend: there’s so much wrong with that from a social services and legal perspective that I don’t even know where to start. It struck me as the sheriff forgetting he was supposed to uphold the law and deciding instead to use his position to make his boyfriend happy.

The sheriff lover + babies + puppies + kittens –> CATEGORY romance! As @SunitaD pointed out via Twitter DM and in her review of Samantha Kane’s Cherry Pie, a lot of m/m romances really are the equivalent of category roms, even if they aren’t branded or marketed as such.

Disclaimer/disclosure: Readers at several review sites seem to enjoy this book a great deal, calling it variously charming, a comfort read, and a book to curl up with. The things that they liked best about it – the lack of conflict, the schmoop of babies and puppies, etc. – are things that I felt were overused tropes undistinguished and unrefreshed in any way here. But YMMV.

* Why are there so few "masculine" heroes in gay romance who are also bottoms?  The only one I can think of offhand is Shane McCormack from K.A. Mitchell’s No Souvenirs.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “SBD: find your tropes here!

  1. Anonymous

    Brilliant review & observations. I am quite bothered by these category-style m/m books, and I can’t quite articulate why. Part of it is what you say about the repetition of tropes like village-good-city-bad we wish would go away in mainstream romance. And I think it’s also the blatant way in which the couple reflects the same dynamic as an m/f couple does.
    Also, a rock star who can’t be gay or bi? Huh? Hello, David Bowie, just for a start.

    • David Bowie, thank you! As I was writing about rock stars with ambiguous sexuality, I kept thinking of “smaller” names or less mainstream artists, but he’s a great example.
      I do think, as you point out, that the m/m category forces the binary gender roles that aren’t realistic. Of course, there are a fair number of m/m books that aren’t category-ish that do the same thing. I wish more readers of m/m and authors would talk about that, but it seems like the elephant in the room. Or maybe they are talking about it but I’m not in on the conversation.

  2. Masculine men who bottom: Brandon in James Buchanan’s “Inland Empire” series. He’s the rough tough cop who loves to bottom, while Nicky is a very slightly effeminate Goth-y top.
    As far as everything else: yes, what you said.

    • Oh, I’d forgotten about Brandon and Nicky. I loved Nicky in the first book of the series. And in later ones, too, but the first book of the series is my favorite.

  3. Oh lord. I don’t think I could get past the sheriff’s last name. I’d just keep picturing Gil Grissom from CSI. *g*
    Mitchell seems to do a decent job with non-femme bottoms. Other than Joey, I wouldn’t call any of her bottoms all that femme (of the small selection of her books I’ve read). Also, the heroes in Josh Lanyon’s Dangerous Ground series are both nicely tough FBI agents.

    • I meant to mention that, but forgot. The character goes out of his way to point out that he’s named for Virgil Grissom the astronaut. But still…
      I haven’t read any of the Dangerous Ground series. I think I have the first TBR somewhere, either on my laptop or Kindle. I bought it because it was a Lanyon book, but I’ve felt really anti-FBI-hero lately, because they seem so overused in rom suspense.

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