Shelf Love

076. Generous Curiosity - Strange Love by Ann Aguirre with Whoa!mance

Short Description

An alien abduction romance with a delightfully unexpected exploration of sexual pleasure. Morgan and Isabeau from Whoa!mance join me to discuss how Strange Love by Ann Aguirre unpacks cultural scripts and encourages generous curiosity. Also: the origin story of the Whoa!mance intro sigh.


crossover podcast, scifi and fantasy romance

Show Notes

An alien abduction romance with a delightfully unexpected exploration of sexual pleasure. Morgan and Isabeau from Whoa!mance join me to discuss how Strange Love by Ann Aguirre unpacks cultural scripts and encourages generous curiosity. Also: the origin story of the Whoa!mance intro sigh.

Show Notes:

Shelf Love:

Guests: Whoa!mance (Morgan and Isabeau)

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Book Discussed

Strange Love by Ann Aguirre

Misc: I mentioned the episode about My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas with Dr. Jayashree Kamble

Top Whoa!mance episode recommendations for Shelf Love listeners


[00:00:00] Andrea Martucci: (big sigh) Welcome to episode 76 of Shelf Love, a podcast that unpacks romance novels with nuance. In conversations with scholars, readers, and other experts, Shelf Love, contextualizes the popular romance genre within the broader, critical discussion of identity, culture, and love.

I'm your host, Andrea Martucci and my guests today are the double whammy duo from Whoa!Mance, a podcast about quote "our romance novels, our moment, ourselves and our convoluted orgasm metaphors."

Whoa!mance is hosted by Morgan and Isabeau and these pals and podcast partners have been going strong for three years. I am so thankful that Morgan and Isabeau dropped in to Shelf Love  to discuss Strange Love by Ann Aguirre with me.

  I picked this book up based on hearing it praised left and right on Twitter, and it was such an unexpected delight. Strange Love explores, and unpacks sexual, gender, and cultural scripts in a truly unique way and the ladies from Whoa!mance seemed uniquely suited to help me talk about it.

Now, before we started recording as veteran podcasters, Morgan and Isabeau offered to record on their side as backup and I waved them off and was like, don't worry about it.

And unfortunately, Isabeau's connection sometimes cut out. So we rerecorded some bits to get them more clearly, but there are a few teeny little sections that I couldn't clean up entirely. I apologize. I feel shame. And I also really apologize to Isabeau for not being able to present her audio as cleanly as I could have if I had taken her up on her kind offer. Le sigh.

Marker [00:01:41]

Morgan, can you introduce, Isabeau? Tell us who Isabeau is.

Morgan: Isabeau is my podcast cohost on Whoa!Mance. She's also my real life friend. She's also an adjunct. Yeah, she's my in real life friend. I don't know what else to say.

Isabeau: That really sums it up. We met in grad school, as people do, and decided that we liked the sound of each other's voices enough to start a venture. Morgan is my podcast partner.

And she had this brilliant idea in grad school. We were talking about her master's thesis and she's like, you know, I'm having this really hard time to talk to people about fan fiction. And I was like, yeah, like the Academy is just not ready for what fan fiction is doing. It's a lot like romance. And she's like, Oh, Really.

And I [00:02:30] was like, yes. And then she very kindly let me go on this amazing screed about romance, because I have been a fan since I was 13. And about two days later, she was like, that's a really great idea for a podcast. And I was like, Oh, is it? Cool. That's, I'm glad you think so. And she's  , like, and if it were a podcast, it'd be called Whoa!mance.

And there was like, that's a brilliant idea.  So from there, we got into my little office at the time and recorded our first episode. And the rest is history of us being shoulder to shoulder and hot little rooms and figuring this stuff out.

Morgan: Yeah, that's how I remember it. I remember champagne and paper coffee cups on our first recording.

Isabeau: Definitely. It was celebratory.

Morgan: Yeah, we did a masters interdisciplinary program in the humanities and there was a lot of like anthropological stuff out there about fanfiction or like a lot, not really, but it was more sociology texts and things.

And there wasn't really anything about the humanities, but everyone was pointing me in the direction of Reading The Romance, which I know you discuss Andrea. And I realized that romance had a similar issue where there's not like a ton of humanities work around the texts themselves. Rather, just a lot of like interrogation that's not always entirely generous to the readership. Which is also preposterous. No one does readership studies on people who exclusively read Hemingway, although I feel like they probably are way more in the DSMR than romance.

Andrea Martucci: Yes. I would agree with that.

And so, Morgan, you had not read any romance or not much romance before Isabeau introduced you to this beautiful genre?

Morgan:   I've read Jane Austen  highfalutin, but no, I'd never, I'd never read a romance. And then after we graduated grad school, I was having a really hard time wanting to read anything again.

And I think the first book I like picked up after grad school was by Saul Bellow. So that was probably a big part of the issue. Yeah. (Andrea: Yikes!) Isabeau pointed me in the direction of a book by Tessa Dare and I was so excited to read it and it.  It not only got me back in the habit of reading, but it also introduced me to the fact that there was something really interesting and rich happening in romance, which is not what I had been led to believe.

And I wanted to talk about it and I thought, no one else wants to talk about this. Let's start a podcast. And it turns out everyone else had already had a (laughs) podcast about romance.

Andrea Martucci: Oh god, so [00:05:00] true. The only romance podcast I listened to before starting my own romance podcast was Smart Bitches Trashy Books,  because I knew about the blog from 10 years ago and I was into podcasts, but somehow despite listening to Smart Bitches occasionally it didn't occur to me - I was like, you know what, I don't think anybody's doing this. I'm going to do a romance book club. And then of course I started researching it and I was like, Oh wow. There's like a bunch of people doing this. But so you guys, why did you start in 2018?

Morgan: We started recording in 2017, so we would have released in 2018. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Okay. All right. So at the time that would have been. Wicked Wallflowers was around then, maybe Heaving Bosoms?

Isabeau: Heaving Bosoms, Wicked and the Wallflowers,  Trashy Books. And that was kind of it. Learning. The Tropes came later. Fated Mates released about five or six months after we did.

Yeah  the landscape was different when we started.  There were fewer of us, but I also think, to the idea of rigorous inquiry, it was happening on Twitter, but it wasn't happening in other spaces as much. We were like two folks who were like, we want to talk about this rigorously. And as Morgan said, the rich tapestry and texture of romance and all of its foibles and ugly bits, we wanted to get into. So

Morgan: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: And so with the premise that you set out with, do you feel like you are still true to that premise?

Or would you say it has evolved and changed as you've been doing this for over two years?

Morgan: I would say it evolves and changes with every book we read. There's - to be perfectly honest, not all romance novels hold up. There's always something interesting to talk about, but some are pretty rickety, I would say, whenever it comes to rigorous inquiry.  At least for the kind that we're doing.

And so sometimes we do, I think, dip into our personal lives more and more,  to try and understand the genre, but that's probably speaking to something in the text itself anyways, but I don't know, Isabea, do you think we've changed our path at all?

  Isabeau: Yes, and no. I think as with the reading of romance, we've grown and evolved, I think also our take on it has become richer.

I think the flavor of Whoa!Mance has become deeper. Whereas before we had a very sort of like, I was the expert, Morgan was a novice, but after you've read 200 romance novels, can you call yourself a novice anymore? And so we had to adapt to both Morgan's changing relationship to romance, but also my own, because I was a pretty unassuming fan.  I [00:07:30] didn't do a lot of work to be like, Ooh, why do I like this? Or, Ooh, why does that make me uncomfortable?

And having to do the podcast has really forced me to look at romance more critically, but also with an eye to the bad-ass project it has been and will continue to be, which has been both affirming and like sad in a lot of ways, (laughs) as anything is.

And I think, I'm happy that we've evolved the way that we have.

Morgan: Yeah. That is a really good point. I always forget that we started off with this concept of you, like introducing me to the world of romance. Being my Virgil or whatever. And you still are in a lot of ways.

Isabeau: And it had to be like, I was Obi wan Kenobi in the Phantom Menace and now  we're comrades in arms here.

Morgan: Yeah, I don't think I give you enough credit for at the beginning, you were picking our books and you were selecting books that you had read personally in your free time that you personally enjoyed.

And that is such a hard choice for us to make now, when we like a book, (laughs) like when we feel that like real deep id connection to it, we're always a little bit like hiding it in a corner from the other one, instead of bringing it forth. But you brought forth Priest and , Oh my gosh. What was the British one -

Isabeau: Oh, that was a Ruthie Knox

Morgan: About Last Night.

And I remember when we were recording and I didn't enjoy the book very much.

Isabeau: Broke my heart.

Morgan: Yeah. And I realized like, Oh, this actually -

Isabeau: One I return to.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think that, I've struggled with that similarly, that feeling of:  have I become a joyless hag and sucked all the joy out of this thing I love, but also  to what you were speaking about, Isabeau, like the project of it.

I feel like I actually have much deeper appreciation in some ways and am  more mindful about the consumption. But it does make it hard when, you find a book that you used to love, let's say. There's a lot of books that I used to love now I read now and I'm like, Oh, I can't help, but notice all the gender essentialism and in particular, a lot of gender role stuff that I find troubling.

And I'm just like, Oh, I can't enjoy this the same way anymore.

Morgan: Right.

Isabeau: Super true. (laughs)

Morgan: Yeah. That was another thing, we tried interviewing authors, but we weren't particularly good at it. Isabeau is good at it. I didn't want to be a part of it because I was too nervous. (laughs) And so we were like, okay, so maybe that's not our route. And then we invited on the lovely, warm [00:10:00] personality of Melanie Johnson. And we were like,  why don't we just talk about a book you really like, that's really important to you.

Let's just make you way more vulnerable than if you were just talking abstractly about your work. And she brought on Flowers from the Storm and by Laura Kinsale. And then we've done that with every author we've had on the show since, most recently, I think Scarlett Peckham brought to us Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught, which is rife with all of that,  gender studies ,  problematic - we all know that it's like bad.

And I think Isabeau and I realized we can't keep having that same conversation and that there's something else going on. Because if you're writing for pleasure, what is your pleasure in your own subjugation and your own negation and like, why was this book popular?

I think maybe the first inkling of that was when we read Shana, by Kathleen Woodiwiss, and I think we originally started with this eye towards like bad gender politic and wanting to point that out. But I think we eventually realized like,  that's only part of the story.

That's a veneer that's on it because this is a genre written,  at least in the eighties and seventies and part of the nineties, like by women for women. So what is the pleasure in that? Because if you understand the underlying project of the creation of romance as a pleasure politic, what does it say that you're writing about getting spanked for looking at a guy the wrong way, by this pirate who kidnapped you? What does it say that that's the expression of pleasure you want to explore? And that's a way harder question to answer and honestly, like a lot of fun.

Isabeau: But like one of the things that I think is both interesting about the question of like pleasure and negation, and what it means, is you can also track social movements across romance. And it's one of the only spaces, since the output is so much, that you can really watch like Johanna Lindsey grow over her career from blatant, terrible stuff to a Diane Keaton, Baby Boom phase of like women can have it all, but they also still want to be spanked.

And her move forward and being able to watch things like that enacted and moved through in romance, I think is a really fascinating and special place to like really center a discussion about what it means to continue to work on gender politics in our moment.

Morgan: I also, I want to know what you think about this, Andrea, because I always think about our Johanna Lindsey series, and we should probably do another series where we focus on one author, but [00:12:30] you can't help, but attribute the timeline that is so clear and easy to discern, to some kind of personal growth, like coming into oneself, becoming more self-assured.

And not just as a writer, not just in your own work, but,  you have to imagine that's imbued in other parts of your personal self.  In conversations like that, it becomes difficult to keep the idea of who the author is, but is that a particular problem to romance?

Is that a particular problem to me? Do you ever struggle with that?

Andrea Martucci: It's complicated because on the one hand it's like work  kind of should stand on its own. But on the other hand, I feel like authors imbue so much of themselves that if somebody is like, a racist, let's say, it's probably going to trickle into their work somehow. That's where it gets complicated, right? If you know somebody a racist and they say racist things in real life, and then you look at their work. And you're like, "I don't know, I don't see it." And it's really not there. Is it not there? Can you not like the work because of the things that aren't in the work that you know about this? And obviously people can choose what they want, right? Like you can choose to let it impact the work or not.

Sherry Thomas, who,  I did an episode on My Beautiful Enemy with Jayashree Kamble.

And we talked about the paper that she wrote and Eric Selinger also wrote a paper about My Beautiful Enemy. And it's really interesting because,  Sherry Thomas emigrated from China to the U S as a teenager, I believe?

Isabeau: When she was 17. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And  the story is that she mostly learned English from romance novels. When I think about her work, and this is something that I talked about in the episode with Jayashree, is that her early work are like British, historical romances and all the characters are white. And Sherry Thomas is a beautiful writer, but the plots tended towards a little bit more like stereotypical, British historical. And they're great books.

But then you see her level of comfort with what she's doing evolve and it's a combination, I assume, of what publishers let her do.

Like what they were like, okay, well you have proven yourself as a writer and now we'll let you write a character that is half-Chinese in a Victorian or something like, you know, it's yeah, it's so complicated because maybe that was her first book pitch and they were like, no.

We don't really know, but I think what you see is her level of comfort as a writer in exploring  things that you don't often see explored in romance or haven't until fairly recently.

[00:15:00] And I think about that arc that you can see in her work, particularly from like an ethnicity and cultural standpoint,  how some authors probably felt like in order to be publishable, they had to adhere to a certain standard. And, you know, I think about some of the writers writing in the seventies and eighties, if you're writing your first book, you're probably taking a lot of cues from the market and then it takes a while to grow into either realizing , Oh, Hey, why is it romantic that the hero is acting this way? I don't really want somebody to do that. Or isn't it a fun fantasy for somebody to do that, and then for me to tame him and turn him into the right mate that I want, but also he keeps spanking me.

(laughs) Morgan: Yeah. We've been reading a chapter a week of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. And one of the things that comes up a lot is Charlotte Bronte is always very clearly sharing her own ideas via her character Jane. And it's so obvious, or it feels very obvious right now on this read.

And is it worthwhile to point that out? And I think it is because I think like the author's understanding of themselves is going to be imbued in that character. And that's also going to shift how we're meant to view that character, and their actions and their choices as like justifiable or in the text itself, it helps you understand the parameters, I think, of the book. And then you can start elbowing them (laughs) ,  once you have a clear idea of what the text wants you to feel. And I think sometimes it can be helpful to think about like how the writer feels about a particular character, a particular text. (Andrea: Yeah!) Or maybe it's not, maybe I'm just confusing myself needlessly.

Andrea Martucci: Well, I think sometimes you get the sense that an author is maybe less interested or less sympathetic to a character's plight.

Maybe particularly at the beginning, before they go through whatever character growth they have to go through. And I think sometimes you can feel that .

Morgan: I just thought of.

Isabeau: Yeah. I totally agree. Debbie Macomber, is that what you're thinking?

Morgan: Oh, no. I was thinking of LaVyrle Spencer. I was thinking about Hummingbird. You really see her come to like her characters, but then, or like Beast by Judith Ivory. I don't think she ever started liking those characters. Start to finish.

And like here I am like immediately,  projecting all my ideas. I'm like, Judith Ivory is obviously a very empathetic person because she was able to write a compelling story about two people she obviously disliked. But once again,  I don't know. (laughs) [00:17:30] What if she liked those people? What if that's just how she talks about people she likes.

Isabeau: Maybe, but I think there's something in here, like to Andrea's point, about a growth of a character or specifically,  I think it, especially how authors treat secondary characters and if their buffoonery is for effect, if it's if we're laughing at their expense and if they're not the bad guy, why are we laughing. I think those are the places that we see it more potentially unconsciously ,    which is what made me think of Debbie Macomber and Morgan, I think  you're right. LaVryle Spencer. I think also this idea of like author text is really collapsing in Romancelandia and like all over, because we have such access to authors now and they like put themselves out there in ways that like open them up to make us think about them,  as like personal artifacts, but also as authors, which is like such a weird zeitgeist and like always such a weird thing when authors are like,  it's just a work of fiction and I'm like, yeah, but I watched your entire process of the WIP.

Like now I know way too much about you.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I am empathetic to authors who are their brand.  How much do we really know about Danielle Steel?  ,  we kind of have like the myth from three media articles where people have gotten close to her, but she doesn't like put her whole life out on Twitter.

So there's a lot left up to our imaginations.

Morgan: Nora Roberts.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I'm empathetic because it's not like I'm like authors can't be people. But you are your brand. And sometimes this is really beneficial, this isn't me saying, don't have politics. Don't state your personal opinion, but some people really show themselves in a way where I'm like, I do not want to pick up anything you write .

I don't even care if people say it sounds great, but you just seem miserable and I don't care, you have literally turned me off to investigating you. I mean,  you can think about that as a, like people find their readers. I think some people use social media platforms as a way to sort of vent their frustrations with the world.

And it's like, this isn't the place, like this would be like me: I work for a company on the marketing team, and like putting up a blog post about how annoying it is to have customers want things from us, or or how hard my job is. It's irrelevant for that context.

Morgan: I think someone who carries off that, like being a fully embodied political person, but it really entwines well with their book brand, would be Courtney Milan.  I can't help but to think she is very much herself in and her social media presence. But it jives so [00:20:00] well with the kinds of heroines she's writing and the kinds of stories she's telling that I think even when she's angry, I'm like, Oh, that makes yes, like that, that makes sense to me. Whereas I think if Debbie McComber for example, came on and  had a similar social media voice to Courtney Milan, I'd be like, what the fuck? Like okay, Debra .

Andrea Martucci: Debra.

Morgan: Yeah. Instead she gets like nice thoughtful pieces written by her son about how much he loves his mom in the New York Times. I'm like, yes, that, that makes sense to me. Knowing that part of her personal life is in no way distracting from her work. But of course, Courtney Milan tends to align with me politically. So that's probably. And Debbie Macomber seems utterly apolitical and  inoffensive to me.  Just because there's like three things about her.

Marker [00:20:51]

Andrea Martucci: Shall we talk about Strange Love by Ann Aguirre? (Uh-Gwair)

Morgan: Yes.

Andrea Martucci: I hope that's how it's said .

Morgan: I thought it was "Uh-Geer-ay". I don't know. I will just go, hey, it's your show.

Andrea Martucci: I decide what your name is! Isa-Boo Dasho.

Isabeau: That is a hundred percent the one that I get the most.

Andrea Martucci: So we're going to talk about Strange Love by Ann Aguirre (pronounced as Morgan suggested) Morgan, you're going to give us the rundown of what this book is about.

Morgan: Right. So this book is about an earthling, named Beryl. For real, it's a type of mineral found on earth.

She is mistakenly picked up by a praying-mantis like alien life form who ends up,  accidentally on earth when he's trying to pick up a potential mate from a different planet. Unfortunately, his ship is scrambled, so he can't return her to earth nor can he go get his other supposed mate. So he gives her the option.

He's like, I can drop you off at the space station. And you can try to make it work. We can go back to my planet and you can try to make it work, or we can go back to my planet and you can enter this elaborate mating contest with me. It's my last chance. I only get five rounds. Round five, ding, ding, are we doing this?

And she's got her dog with her and she says, yes, because she's been implanted with this chip that translates all alien languages and then translates her vocalizations for them. Same goes for her dog. So she now has a talking dog. And guess what? They go to his planet. And they fall [00:22:30] in love and  over the course of the elaborate and mating contest ritual, she makes friends, she totally shakes up the system, and they have sex, even though he's a praying mantis, I was picturing Zorak from Space Ghost. Any other thoughts?

Isabeau: I was picturing Zorak and the grasshopper from A Bug's Life, voiced famously by Kevin Spacey, but I didn't like that voice. So then I changed it for David Hyde Pierce in my mind.

Morgan: That's very specific.

Isabeau: It was very specific. Thank you.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah, I think the cover picture of Zylar, our intrepid space traveling hero, looks a little bit like the alien from Alien.

Morgan: Yes. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: I was actually really like grateful for the  visual, because it's so hard to imagine an insectoid alien species, like and what they would look like.

Morgan: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: He has like some sort of like hard shell,  the coloring of the shell is how they consider how attractive they are. So like the more  variegated and more shades in their shell, the more attractive they are on.

Morgan: Yeah. More symmetrical patterns. Also. I thought that was interesting, yeah. The book cover has the super phallic alien on the cover and based on a famously phallic alien created by the most phallic artist ever, Geiger. And yet in the book, no phallus. No, there are, there are, but his sex organs are non penetrative. He has the penetrated sex organs.

Andrea Martucci: Yes. Yeah. And so I'm glad we're talking about sex right away. Let's (Morgan laughs) this is legitimately why I wanted to talk about this book. Not because -

Morgan: You want to get to the hot part. The genitals.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Let's talk about the genitals of the insectoid alien. Let's just get started. There's lots of interesting things about this book, I think, but what I found the most fascinating and what really sent me scurrying about to try to find somebody to talk about this with, in this case, some bodies, was that I felt like having to navigate the fact that these two life forms, they cannot procreate together and their genitals, unlike the Ice Planet Barbarians, there's no obvious,  tab A, slot B scenario here.

And I thought it was just a really interesting thing to play with in a romance novel. And what I wanted to talk [00:25:00] about was how the way the novel deals with this really opens up those of us who do have human body parts, perhaps could conceptualize what sexual pleasure could look like and pull ourselves out of these sexual scripts that A. We read about in romance novels a lot of time, B. We're sort of culturally inundated with, this is how sex works.

Morgan: Yeah. It reminds me, I in my head, I was like, imagining that this was some like film thing, but I think it was actually like a Vox Media documentary on sex.

And one of the talking heads on that show said that, they were discussing the phenomenon of people with the same genitals having more fulfilling sex lives with one another. And she theorized that it's because we are given a narrative when we have different genitals from our sexual partner, that sex has to go a certain way.

And it tends to favor the penetrative rather than the penetrated. And so we already come to sex with this power imbalance in place, that's reinforced by all these narratives we consume. And people who don't have that narrative to pull from are able to create their own text around how sex is supposed to work,  and feel more empowered to try different things, that don't fit into the like missionary style of love making, we can say.

And that's what I thought of when I was reading this book. Like they are not beholden, there's a lot of like physical differences. So one thing is that his sex organs are on his chest, in his thorax.

That they're revealed  when he's aroused, his chiten comes open to reveal his sex organs. He has four holes instead of one that are all aligned. They're not very deep. They're like finger depth. Tongue depth, we later discover. And his form of evacuation is that you stimulate like, essentially like an egg sack, like a yolk, until it bursts.

Andrea Martucci: And releases his  spermatazoa or something like that.

Isabeau: Yeah.

Morgan: And then the idea is that if he was having sex with another member of his species,  they have four penetrative little grabber things, but then slurp up his spermatozoa and then go back into their chiten.

So there's like a lot of differences, but  there's also still like lubrication and there's also still  the need for foreplay, as we understand it, [00:27:30] in order to prepare for sex and sexuality. And then we also discover that their fluids create a combustible reaction, which is really nice.

So you tell me if they're sexually incompatible. Yeah.

Isabeau: Yeah, no, I love that too, where it's like, Because not only are their genitals not aligned because of their species, but they're like physically mismatched, like he's much taller than she is. He also has like tallons and claws and a hard carapace, but he has like these soft tender parts.

And it's mentioned a bunch of times in the book where it's like, if this were a member of his own species, this would be a threat or no one's ever touched this part of him because everybody on his planet has tallons. So she finds these like very soft leathery places. And then she just puts her mouth on it or she's like nuzzles into it because she wants soft things.

And then he's like, Oh my God, what is this sensation?

Morgan: Yeah.

Isabeau: And like that surprise and discovery felt like such a lovely corollary to like the things that we see in  more traditional romances where it's like, Oh, you've discovered  the inside of my elbow or like the tender part of my wrist.

And to have that in this alien version was so delighting and like, it felt both alien and familiar, which I think is such a deft move on the part of this author.

Andrea Martucci: Agree. Yeah. Yeah. There's lots of a neck ruff stuff going on.

Morgan: Can you imagine if your like arousal point was on your neck and people could see you get aroused via your neck?

I would be so embarrassed. I guess that's just being a teenage boy. I felt very embarrassed for him.

Isabeau: He felt embarrassed by it too. And he like kept trying to control it. Like all of those moments of just like unexpected reaction was just, he was lovely. I loved him. Zylar was great.

Andrea Martucci: Zylar was so interesting because he's not good enough for the people on his own planet. Like he's a younger son or like lower-ranking son. His coloring is not quite as impressive as his older impressive brother. And so he's somebody whose attributes haven't really been appreciated by the people in his own culture.

And similarly Beryl is like a daycare worker on earth. And when she's presented with her choices okay, Hey, and here are your options now. She's like, I had a bunch of student debt and I was just dealing with dirty diapers all day. And I  had no dating prospects and like no family, this actually could be kind of cool.

And, I love that there's these two misfits in their own worlds, who find each other. And are so open-minded [00:30:00] about finding things to appreciate about the other. At the beginning, he's like, I don't think she's very attractive, but she's very fearsome and I really like that.

Morgan: Yeah. Like even their ideas of what constitutes a sexually desirable partner. And like sex is also described as  a fleetingly interesting thing on his planet. And it's more about procreation  rather than sex for pleasure. And I love that his culture is more interested in like a ferocious looking female, right.

And his term of endearment that they use is Terrible One. And how she adapts to that. This is getting into cultural differences, but one of my favorite things about talking about how they're both misfits in their own planets is that we also see them through each other's eyes. And it really points out how much of our cultural understanding is construct and really irrelevant whenever it comes down to like the most, you know, if you want to say falling in love, having romantic love, or just like having connections with other people.

Things like,  the pattern of your chiten and how colorful it is is really actually irrelevant to who you are as a person, except for the fact that it's damaged your confidence and how he eventually comes to be a more confident and assured person, because he has a partner who doesn't see a reason for him not to be, and really appreciates him for who he is. I thought that was really nice.   

Truly, Andrea, I would have never picked up this book. I think there is such a  stigma around, even,  I'm a romance podcaster. I always get really bristly whenever people are like, Oh, there's that romance novel about having sex with the coronavirus or whatever? Like you guys should talk about that.

I'm like, no, that's not what it's about, but if I would have just seen the back of this book, I would have been like, this is novelty. This is not what I'm interested in. But in actuality, like this was so rich and satisfying and very sexy. And I think really got to these like universal big political ideas without feeling prescriptive. Like this is probably the most queer romance novel I've read. But , it never makes a thing out of it. So like her friend Kerr, who is a plant life form uses they pronouns. It's never discussed. It's just Kerr is they .

They'd also briefly mentioned that she dated both men and women on earth. And then it's like part of the [00:32:30] conversation where she talks about how she would have a hard time getting dressed to go on a date.

And the fact that their sex organs are incompatible, the book talks about it as something they have to figure out, but it's never like , "Oh brother, how are we going to make this work," right?

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Like we can't be together!

Morgan: Right? Yes.

Isabeau: It's not the central obstacle. It's not the central problem. It's just a way for them to grow together in their communication. And I think you're exactly right Morgan, to say that it is prescriptive without being preachy, because it's like, what if we did live in a world where no one had to have a conversation about pronouns because it just is.

And like isn't Kerr lovely in all of their gorgeous fronds.

Or the fact at the end, that Kerr ends up with two partners and, that's just. I loved how solid this book was in those moves and that solidity and that like non need to talk about it, was that moment where it's like, this is the world we could have if we wanted to, it's just this easy.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah.

Isabeau: And I loved that. I loved that.

Andrea Martucci: That re-imagining of certain aspects of the world, I think is so amazing because the worlds discussed here are not perfect. You know, they're not utopias. It's just,  they don't have this problem here because why would they have all the same cultural nonsense that we have on earth? I thought that was lovely, like to think about what things might be more important on this world, given the context of this world.

There is even this evolution in Zylar's thinking about his world and Beryl certainly has similar realizations about earth once confronted with a different culture.

  When she was abducted, she had been cleaning up from a Civil War reenactment or something, and

Morgan: yeah

Andrea Martucci: she was describing it to Zylar and he's like, that's really weird. You like, play act your battles, your war? And she's like, that is weird. Huh? Yeah. And I guess we do glamorize war.

And then he has these similar realizations about his world, like particularly around emotion where he's like, Oh, we don't comfort each other. We don't care about each other's emotions that much and wow, this is so refreshing. Somebody actually cares how I feel about all of these things going on in my life.

And there was something specifically about  how our cultures hold onto things past the point at which they useful to us. Like this, the society, they [00:35:00] do not actually gestate their eggs the same way they used to in the past. Like their technology has evolved to the point at which basically young are created somehow and then given to worthy partners to  rear according to political or economic status basically.

But there is still this concept of the female of the species being the nest guardian. And so they prize these warrior guardians, and that's part of this whole battle. You have to be  really good at defending your young in order to be worthy of having young.

And through this competition Zylar's like, we don't actually need to do this anymore. We don't face the same threats. Like we don't need to look for the same things we used to look for in partners and live according to these prescribed roles, they do have  genders, but "oh, we don't have to be doing this anymore."

Morgan: And then it's also become like a spectacle for entertainment. Like I think he quickly realizes the main project of this isn't really about overpopulation, it's about something else. This elaborate set of challenges they have to go through.

Isabeau: So the stakes of the choosing are, if you don't complete it in five trials, you enter a servile class on are castrated.  That's a huge stake for Zylar.

Not only then are you like ostracized from society in a very particular way, his entire class is stripped from him, but also without his consent, really,  his entire sexual outlook is denied. And so the stakes of this society are very high. And also as Andrea you've so clearly pointed out, like it just doesn't have to be that way anymore because the society has moved so much further from its overpopulation problem, but they still do this thing.

Morgan: I may, I might push back on that point about the drone status a little bit, because I think that might be our personal projection, which I think comes up a lot. Zylar, the way he describes becoming a drone is like, it's not that it's bad. It's just that it would be different than what I'm used to. And he's constantly saying, not that that's the worst thing that could happen to me. And that he's accepted it in the text.

Isabeau: And the text he's like super not excited about it, because he's like, and then like the drone was the one that was fetching and carrying, and the drone was the one that was doing the work. And the drone is like living in quarters that have no comforts.

He understands it as a loss. And it's something that he doesn't want. He's gone to all of these lengths to not become one. And it's not until the third [00:37:30] act, maybe that the castration part of it is also revealed because he thinks about that castration part. Maybe it wasn't revealed as a consequence because he didn't view it as one, until he had feelings for Beryl.

But the drone option becomes worse and worse. Over the course of the text,

Morgan: Because he's found someone that he would like to spend his life with. But prior I think to his like deep emotional connection - because there's that beautiful moment where he was like, even if I lived as a drone, I would think about her every single day.

And it's such a beautiful sentiment that even after you're castrated, you would still think about your romantic partner. But I remember, in the text, his main impetus, at least the way I read it, was not to disappoint his progenitors, his parents who were really powerful founding family in their community and he did not want to be a disappointment to them. He also has this rivalry with his nest mate, his sibling,  who is very powerful, very successful. And that, to me, felt like more of a motivation towards finding a partner and going through all five possible rounds of the choosing,  as they call it, rather than trying to avoid this lifestyle as a drone.

Which I think at one point he even says, it would be a relief.

Isabeau: He does say that early in the beginning. And I think you're right. I would push back on the term lifestyle because again, the choices here seem really curtailed and that's another really important thing about Zylar and Beryl is that he's constantly giving her choices or he's like, these are the options. Here is your slate of choices. These are some of the outcomes of some of these choices. And I think like one of the things that the drone option is, it's like really about not having choices

Andrea Martucci: And that's a beautiful line from this. Beryl thinks at one point, " if you had to be abducted by aliens, it was good to wind up with one who respected your boundaries and preferences." Kind of like the headline for this book, I think.

Morgan: That's true. I think that's super true and I also love that as a hero, zylar, isn't a cinnamon roll. He's not like an alpha, she actually says explicitly, which I think there are some meta romance moments in this text. She says explicitly, like, I didn't want like an alpha, I would have been super irritated. But she also doesn't describe him as gushy or anything like he's thoughtful.

Which I think this book is so resistant and meta about narrative and how we apply [00:40:00] narrative to our actual lives and how that's not actually helpful. And to shed those ideas is really freeing and interesting.

Andrea Martucci: The way the story ends is, they didn't win in the context that they thought that they needed to win in.  The way things end, they basically have been relegated to what they consider to be like a pretty terrible fate if they had considered it earlier or like, it wasn't even in the options that they originally were thinking about, but they basically decide that they're gonna make the best of it and they're going to be together. And that's really the most important thing  of all.

Yeah. It's a very nice message of like, re-imagining what could make you happy? Who could make you happy. What your future could look like and broadening your horizons, opening up the universe, one could say.

Isabeau: Yeah.

Morgan: So I want to talk about the ending because I was a little disappointed in the worldview that was presented there in.  Although then I'm like, do I have a right to be disappointed in it? Is it actually in opposition of these ideas?

So they get relegated to go and live as like a barrier class (we laugh) on the edges of the nuclear wasteland of the rest of the community. Like she goes from this beautifully populous city with all sorts of  very interplanetary, metropolitan, to, she said it looked like the Grand Canyon, but scarier,  and their home is carved into rock. But whenever they are presented with this option, Zylar and her decide, like we can make it. If we just work really hard, (Andrea: oh...) we'll get back to the city. I don't like that shit,

Andrea Martucci: The Neoliberal aspect of we're going to work real hard and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and

Isabeau: Yeah, that's so funny. I didn't read it that way. I just thought they were like homesteading and like moisture farmers on Tatooine and that they were just going to live a much simpler life.

Morgan: No, they're like, here, you're cannon fodder for  these like mutated creatures that invade that we have to keep out of the city. But maybe if you're like really productive, we'll let you go even closer to the city and then maybe someday you'll be back in town.

But then I loved it because when she actually gets there, she's like this "primitive" air quotes, set up is super homey to me. I don't know if I want to leave.

Andrea Martucci: What's that aesthetic? Cottagecore?

Morgan: Yeah. [00:42:30] It's very Cottagecore for the culture because it has a bath tub

Isabeau: Yeah, and she has to make food. Like she's been eating these like tasteless cubes and she's like really excited that there's a cooking implement that she's going to learn to cook for him. That scene was so domestic and like they've got the dog and  ,

Andrea Martucci: This is the first book in the series. And first of all, I think the artificial intelligence is going to have their own book?

Morgan: His AI become sentient .

Andrea Martucci: That's exciting. (Morgan repronounces "sentient" and Andrea and Isabeau agree.)

I think there's possibility that if we come back to Zylar and Beryl where we left them, that maybe they discover that the mutants are not quite as they imagined from what they had been told,

I feel like there's possibility there of the story that they had been told about this situation is not all completely accurate.

Morgan: Yeah. God, I hope it doesn't disappoint me on that day expectation.

Andrea Martucci: I know ! And, you know, we really should mention Snaps the dog.

Morgan: The talking dog. Yes.

Andrea Martucci: I think that Snaps just is a lovely example, once more, of how you have to throw out all the assumptions - if you were an alien coming to earth and you encounter two life forms, how would you identify that the one covered in fur that is being walked by the other, like on a leash is a pet and not also just a different species that is a friend who also needs a talking implant.

Morgan: I was utterly confused at the beginning of the book, because he described them both as fur covered. And of course we're fur covered to a praying mantis, to an insect. But the whole time I was like, is it a deer and a baby deer?

Is he going to take those onto his spaceship? How do we get to the - truly baffled

Andrea Martucci: by it. (Andrea rudely spoke over Morgan here and apologizes for not letting her finish her sentence.)

That confusion is so representative of like, imagine this was your first interaction. How would you make sense of it?

Morgan: Well, and I also love that this book doesn't fall back on any of our like human anthropological stuff. Like he doesn't talk about the fact that she walks on two legs when he first sees her versus  the four legged creature. Because legs mean something completely different to an insectoid than it does to a humanoid. And I just love that.

Isabeau pointed out to me that the authors who blurbed this book are actually SciFi authors. And I think that really speaks to the fact that this book is very high level romance, very skilled writing in general, but also it's very high level SciFi there's no one for one. It's not like she built this [00:45:00] other world in opposition to earth.

It's its own thing entirely. I mean, of course it's informed by being an actual human on actual earth, but I was so struck by that. Like she really  did not make any assumptions when she was in  our hero's perspective, that weren't earned.

Isabeau: And all of that goes to say with Snaps the dog, who gets his own translator and says things that you imagine that your dog would say, like, when they're barking,  "Hey, Hey, Hey!"

But also like, you know, "Oh, you're sad. What can I do?" And like, "I'm your best boy." And like, "I still love you." And like all the things that you definitely know your dog is saying to you, and he like (inaudible) with the choosing and gets them basically   disqualified . Snaps really reminded me of another talking dog from the YA book called The Never Letting Go, which is now going to be a movie with Tom Holland.  And like the agony of a dog who just loves you and then feels bad when it's done something wrong as communicated in human language. It is much worse. Snaps feels so bad and then they feel bad because they can understand Snaps. And then they are like, the whole thing is just Ugh, talking dogs. Really got me.

Andrea Martucci: I loved snaps. The happy side of Snaps. Like when you come in the door, he exclaims "Welcome! Welcome! I'm so glad you're here. Welcome! Gosh, welcome." and I'm like, yes, definitely.

But then snaps is also funny and sort of like a higher level way as well. She says to him at one point, "come on, how bad could it be?" That was a rhetorical question, but nobody had explained that concept to dogs because he answered, "they could eat us, burn us or put us in cages, not all at once."

It's was just like, yeah , think that linguistically,  there's a lot of funny moments in this book that play off that idea of idioms or,  just rhetorical questions that we ask where,  why would a dog not assume you were asking that, legitimately. Or the translator can't always handle  certain phrases  that Beryl says.

And so I think just there's a lot of fun with language and I'm so glad that I finally got to talk about this book with somebody, two people.

Morgan: I think like also Snaps serves to decentralize the human aspect of earth. Because she also has communication issues with her fellow earthling, who's a dog. It's not just about  where you're from. It's also about your species identification, how you understand and communicate with the world. So Snaps is doing some pretty high level shit. As a character, [00:47:30] excuse me, some high level stuff as a character.

(very quietly) Andrea Martucci: I think he's doing some high level shit. (laughs)

As I like to say, I'm not bound by the FTC, his rules. We

Morgan: We put a little "E" "on our show. That's fine.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Any final thoughts on Strange

Isabeau: Love?

Everyone should go out and buy this book. Everyone should get into this series. Everyone should just come to conversations with intimates and friends with a very generous curiosity, which this book was such a lovely reminder of, where it's like, you can have hard conversations about all sorts of things, not just like your sexy bits.

And like if you come to it with this generous curiosity, like this book is just all - like 10 out of 10, would do again, highly recommend.

Morgan: Generous curiosity is perfect. It also describes why this text works. It's because from the perspective of our heroine, she has that generous curiosity. So we don't get a whole lot of judgment.

And I think putting yourself in a situation where you have to alleviate the need for assumption. There's tons of stuff I still want to talk about this book, but the final thought would be it's a truly special, unexpected text. I think if you want to imagine what scifi, speculative, niche subgenre romance can do, I don't think it gets much more skilled, and creative than this novel. And just like it totally refreshed my idea of romance. I can't believe I wouldn't have read this otherwise. Andrea, thank you so much.

Andrea Martucci: You're welcome. That's why I started this podcast and I finally got somebody to read a book that they weren't going to read otherwise. (Morgan laughs) 

Morgan: At long last!

Andrea Martucci: I did  it. And I think generous curiosity should be the title of this episode.

Morgan: Chef's kiss.

Andrea Martucci: How'd you guys come up with the sighs, the Whoa!mance sigh intro?

Morgan: I thought it sounded post-coital.

Isabeau: How did we come up with that?

Morgan: No one has come up with that. No one thinks it sounds post-coital. I don't know if I want people to know that either.

Andrea Martucci: It sounds post-coital to me.

Morgan: Thank goodness.

Isabeau: Good, I'm glad

Morgan: It works so well. And I have no idea why it works, but it really does, I think.

Isabeau: Cause the sigh changes for the book. So it also is an auditory cue to like what you might be getting into,  or how we're feeling while we're recording. I think that's also one of the things that I love about it as like it, as a thing. I think it does a lot of  unarticulated work.

Morgan: You can not hide in a sigh.

Andrea Martucci: That's true. Oh gosh. I'm just like, dang. You're right. You're right. Do [00:50:00] you talk about the episode first and then record the sighs with the it's about blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Like, do you, predecide what you're going to say in there?

Morgan: No,  we improvise it. And I think one of the reasons it's fun is that I think it's always good maybe to start with an improvisation exercise, but I always start, every episode trying to get Isabeau to break. And so I will give like the most - we just keep trying and I have to cut myself off eventually.

But yeah, no, we don't talk about it beforehand. Sometimes I've written down stuff that I'm like, this is really good. I should say this, but most of the time we just improvise it.

Isabeau: Yeah, you can really catch me on my left foot sometimes. It really, it is truly a surprise. And like, you know, what a joy after three years of recording,  that I can still be surprised in the intro by my partner.

Andrea Martucci: Oh my gosh. And I totally got the math wrong earlier. I've been doing so much bad math lately. Three years, you guys?

Morgan: Coming up, yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Oh my goodness. I really feel like it was a missed opportunity to not start this episode - now I've so many regrets. Now that I know this. Thanks guys. I couldn't do that.

I couldn't do the riff. Like you've seen me do a million times, like later I would be like, Oh shit, I should have said this. And also it's just me. So

Morgan: yeah. The good news is,  themes come up more than once. So usually if I think about something after the fact, I put it in my back pocket. I'm like, it might come up again.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah, that's good. Yeah. Keep some notes.

So Morgan, Isabeau, Whoa!Mance. Where can people find you online? Please do mention, what are some of your favorite episodes of Whoa!Mance that people should check out and where can they find them?

Morgan: Oh, my gosh, we are on everywhere your podcast wants to be.  Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, actually on Spotify, we have some playlists of our show. If you're looking for a particular topic and we're trying to do that more. But you can find us at, W H O A M A N C E. Any burgeoning podcasters out there, do not put an onomatopoeia in your podcast name. You can also find us on Instagram @whoamance. It's spelled the same way

Isabeau: on Twitter @mance_whoa .   on Facebook,  we're at Whoamance. And then if you are listening to us for the first time and thank you for having us on your show. In terms of favorite episodes, if you liked the content of this book, I recommend Mermaid's Kiss.

It's bonkers. Morgan also makes me laugh until I cry at multiple points. It's a [00:52:30] great episode. I really love it.

Morgan: I love Mermaid's Kiss. I think Shanna is a great episode. Our first Kathleen Woodiwiss.  I think ,  also Hummingbird by LaVyrle Spencer someone DMed us  and said that's my favorite episode. And I was like, Oh my God, it's so good. I love it so much. Yes. Hummingbird is also one of my all time favorite books.

Andrea Martucci: And you guys do a lot of older books, like early ur-romance texts from like the seventies, eighties, nineties. But you also do some newer stuff.

Morgan: Yeah, we love doing self published, small published stuff. One of my favorite books that we read recently was by Katrina Jackson, Office Hours.

Yes. A friend of your podcast.

Isabeau: It's so fucking good!

Morgan: Oh, and then we also did Behind Closed Doors recently, which I can't believe how little known that writer is.

Isabeau: Seriously, everybody should go get Behind Closed Doors and help that indie author, just an incredible work. Everybody should listen to that episode too.

I think we do a lot of really good stuff.

Andrea Martucci: Who's the  author of that ?

Morgan: Jude Lucens. It's such a good name. If you enjoy queer romance. That's a great one. And that's a non-monogamous,  bisexual,  story set in Victorian England. So very good. It is steamy though. So if you're a little, a little shy, maybe not the one for you, but

Andrea Martucci: If you're a little shy, get the fuck out of here. What are you doing here?

Morgan: If you're a little shy, probably don't look us up, but,  we also talk about authors, like Debbie Macomber . We did an episode on an Amish romance.

Isabeau: We did, we don't often do sweet romances, but we do them. We just prefer this steamy stuff.

Morgan: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Same.

Thank you both so much for being here. I really appreciate it. You made my dreams come true,

Morgan: You made our dreams come true, andrea.

Isabeau: Such a pleasure.

Thank you so for bringing this into our lives,

Morgan: And this kind of show just really, I think demonstrates one of the best parts about romance, which is it's communal,  and it's not hierarchical and just always take recommendations from other people, share your loves and your likes and your titillation.

I just love that part of it.

Andrea Martucci: Thanks for listening to episode 76 of Shelf Love and thank you to Morgan and Isabeau from Whoa!mance for joining me. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on

Coming up soon on Shelf Love, [00:55:00] Dame Jodie Slaughter, romance author, drops by to talk about how Twilight fan fiction was her gateway into romance novels, which is really just in service to talking about another thing.

(clip from forthcoming episode)

(in rapidly escalating, unique, possibly British accents) Bridgerton.

Jodie Slaughter: Bridgerton.

Andrea Martucci: Bridgerton.

Jodie Slaughter: Bridgerton.

Andrea Martucci: Bridgerton.

Jodie Slaughter: Bridgerton.

(end clip)

Andrea Martucci: And we talk about if we think Bridgerton is going to lead to lots of new romance readers. Can you guess what I think?

Also coming soon, Julie Moody-Freeman, host of the Black Romance Podcast and an African and Black Diaspora Studies professor at DePaul joins me to share how she uses cultural studies as a lens through which to read and discuss romance with her students.

And if you're a Whoa!mance listener and hearing about Shelf Love for the first time, please come check out my other episodes. I have 75 episodes in the backlog that are not this one.  I have plenty of episodes about specific books as well as topics about romance novels. And you can always find more information on

I'm @shelflovepod on Twitter and @shelflovepodcast on Instagram.

  Thank you so much for joining me today. If you have any thoughts on the show, I'd love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to [email protected].

This episode is produced by me, Andrea Martucci. Thank you to Shelf Love's editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson, and Tasha L. Harrison.

That's all for this week. Black lives matter. Stay safe, stay mad and keep reading romance.

(Extended clip:)

 Morgan: Absolutely. I think that's so perfect. That's so perfect. Uh, Chef's Kiss. (Andrea starts talking before she can finish) 

Andrea Martucci: So sorry, I cut off your chef's kiss.

Morgan: (sound of aggravation, laughs, tries again but Andrea interrupts her as she starts to say "Go again") Everyone, silence!

Chef's kiss.