Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

EXTREME DANGER, BY SHANNON MCKENNA (an exorcism)

Shannon McKenna is One of Those Authors.

You know the kind.

I bitch endlessly about her books; after reading one I immediately log on to Amazon to write 1-star reviews. I rant about her to anyone who'll listen. I think her heroes have the emotional depth of teaspoons, her heroines are doormats and her writing so purple, it borders magenta.

But I read every damn one of her infuriating books. That’s right. Every. Last. One. And I hate myself.

After the debacle of Hot Night (a genuinely awful book, with a disturbing and dysfunctional central relationship), I found myself reluctantly won over by The Edge of Midnight, largely thanks to the sweet secondary romance. So I decided that if I was going to read another McKenna, I would do my honest best to analyse what it is about her work that makes it so hard to like and yet so - consumable.

And here I am. Get comfortable, this is going to take some time.

Just to get you into my mindset, I read Extreme Danger right after Kresley Cole’s Dark Needs at Night’s Edge (Thank you Kresely Cole for breaking my book-rut). McKenna and Cole share a certain modern sensibility. I’m not sure how best to put it, but their work is littered with pop culture references, zippy dialogue, techo-talk and women who are more recognisable to me than many others I encounter in contemporary fiction. But the similarities end there. For example, Cole is all about drawing out the sexual tension. In this instance, the heroine Neomi is a ghost and it is more than half way through the book before she actually kisses her hero. Despite this, DNaNE was hot as hell, with some truly sizzling foreplay - all the more impressive for the fact that they cannot touch for such a large portion of the story.

Contrast with Extreme Danger. On page 15, a wet and nude Becca Cattrell encounters Nick Ward for the first time. By page 30, he’s brought her to the big O, and by page 58, she is groped intimately by the villain. And that’s notwithstanding the skanky villain sex. McKenna isn’t wasting any time, here.

Oh, the plot? Nick Ward was due his own book after making perfunctory appearances in four earlier novels, revolving around the McCloud brothers and their respective doorma - heroines. Ahem.

Nick. Right. Nick has been a surly constant in the previous books: ex-FBI, a tattooed, foul mouthed presence paying penance for his unwitting betrayal of Connor McCloud in Standing in the Shadows. However, in Extreme Danger, we quickly learn that Nick has plenty of other reasons to be sulky, bad tempered and socially retarded: a bad childhood (natch), a string of failed relationships, job dissatisfaction. You know, the kind of really dark stuff that would turn any ordinary human being into a suicidal vigilante.

You heard me. Nick plans to take down the villainous Vadim Zhoglo, or die trying. Zhoglo is so evil, his latest money making scheme involves selling the organs of unwanted children for millions of dollars. He is also an arms dealer, human trafficker and all round evil-doer. In his very first scene, Zhoglo punishes one of his henchmen by adding his son to the human shipment “to defray the cost of your errors.” (this, you sense, is the gun that will go off in the third act).

So our Nick is on a suicide mission, infiltrating Zhoglo’s operation by acting as caretaker for one of his properties.

Enter Becca Cattrell. Becca has been a Good Girl all her life, but the end of her engagement to a cheating scumbag (who, of course, has never satisfied her sexually and yet accuses her of coldness) (duh) has liberated her to the extent that she plans to go skinny dipping in the pool house next door - also, coincidentally, the property that Nick is guarding.

And so ordinary, plain-Jane Becca stumbles into a situation wildly out of her realm of experience. So far so Anne Stuart. Nick assumes that the naked, luscious Becca must be a deadly assassin and ‘interrogates’ her to a quivering, lilac hued climax. Despite this, it soon becomes obvious that Becca is exactly what she claims, and Nick is forced to blow his cover to save her life, incurring Zhoglo’s wrath in the process.

And so on. In a campy, cartoonish way, McKenna’s overblown plots, florid prose and EEEVIIIIL villains make for an entertaining read. Even her protagonists, so often the embodiment of all that is wrong with the genre, have their peculiar charm. Her heroes are brawny, inarticulate alphas longing for domestication. As soon as they hone in on their woman, they become drooling, idiotic, erections on legs, prone to all sorts of over-protective, Neanderthal behaviour. Her heroines are quite likeable - relatable, even. Young, modern, single women with jobs, families and the attendant complications. Of course, they fall for the musclebound hero, but they are also dominated and overwhelmed by them. Sex scenes are almost always power struggles in which the hero overcomes and then subdues the heroine. This balance is never redressed.

The elements in Extreme Danger that leave me uneasy are the same in McKenna’s other novels. I’ll list them below and try to explain why they rub me the wrong way.

Sex. McKenna is known for her steamy novels, and Extreme Danger is no exception to this rule. Her prose is explicit and leaves little to the imagination. One reviewer from AAR, described it as cold, crude and juvenile.

My feelings are closer to Mrs Giggles, who said:
The love scenes are very nice, but because there is an emotional disconnect between me and the characters (especially with the heroine who comes off like a fragile ragdoll that needs to be coddled and pampered 24/7), the well-done love scenes are like well-choreographed scenes in an adult movie. Nice moves, yes, but where is the love?

Now, I don’t have a problem with the heroines (until they’ve been utterly cowed by the heroes and transformed into sex-dolls) but there is something about the sex that comes across as vaguely ‘adult movie-esque’ as opposed to erotic and romantic. It could be the excessive use of words like tits, ass and pussy in referring to the heroine, so that she is ultimately reduced to these body parts, objectified and sexualized to the point - half way through the novel, usually - that she loses every other aspect of her personality. It doesn’t help that McKenna’s heroines are all small with large breasts, and that the sex is hilariously, porn-tastically, non-stop.

Even Becca, a ‘plain’ heroine, isn’t spared this objectification. As Nick helpfully points out about her glasses:
“It’s a classic porn motif. The formerly frigid sex bomb secretary, right after her sexual awakening, but before she thinks to ditch the specs and lose the tight bun. Add virginal lingerie and you have yourself a fantasy.”

This might be amusingly meta if McKenna actually subverted the ‘classic porn motif.’ Instead, it is later enacted, in a scene where Nick asserts his sexual dominance in response to Becca putting herself in a dangerous situation and scaring him. Becca remains, to the end, the willing receptacle for Nick’s raging, domineering libido.

Women. This is tied to the sex. Strong themes of male domination run through McKenna’s books. Heroines might be plucky, they might save themselves from the bad guy, but they are small and vulnerable and must be protected by the hero. This protectiveness is cloaked in a jealous possessiveness. In the scene where Nick and Becca discuss being exclusive, this bizarre moment takes place:
He gripped [his erection], fixing a steely gaze at her. “Don’t even look at other guys,” he said softly.

Yikes!

Earlier in the novel, former-hero Seth, ‘playfully’ growls to his wife, “Don’t talk to other guys in a language I don’t know.”

When heroines from past books make an appearance, it is as brides, or mothers/ mothers-to-be. They are excessively interested in match-making and weddings (“Oh God!” shrieks Margot when she discovers Nick has a girlfriend. “I have got to go call Raine and Liv and Erin right away... This is so juicy. I love it. I just love it.” Exit Margot), whilst the menfolk play with their guns and chase the bad guys.

And then you have the glaring exception to this rule, Tamara, a mysterious, ball busting femme fatale who scares the other men with her dark skills and underworld contacts. Tamara is everything the other women are not - McKenna’s most brilliant creation - a woman who says nasty things, who kills and manipulates for her own gain. Who uses her sexuality as a weapon when she needs to, or just for fun. Tamara is the coolest character in these books, the author’s secret voice, perhaps. “She’s succulent” Tamara says of Becca, “I congratulate you on your lovely acquisition.” Even Tamara can see Becca is little more than an appendage.

Add to this potent cocktail, aforementioned Skanky Villain Sex (so last century), some unpleasant depictions of violence against women and girls, and I am left with conflicted feelings, consisting largely of regret and self-loathing.

Am I in an abusive relationship with this writer? Will I ever break free? For how long can I resist the temptation of Baddest Bad Boys?

C- for Extreme Danger.

18 comments:

RfP said...

Hmm, yes. I loved the first McKenna I read, Behind Closed Doors--it seemed fresh and unusual. (I like a degree of transgressiveness in a book--e.g. sometimes a Susan Johnson or Robin Schone or Bertrice Small can make me uncomfortable in a way that makes me think.) Unfortunately, Behind Closed Doors stayed fresh only until I read her later books, which seem to strive to outdo the first in ookiness without breaking new ground.

At this point I'm not sure what to think. I swing between
(a) She has a fascinatingly unusual perspective and voice but only one idea that she's pushed way beyond absurdity, or
(b) It's a ho-hum exploitive take on power and sex but it's interesting because of how unabashed it is, its pacing, and the even-handed ookiness of hero and villain alike.

Which boils down to either
(a) She's trying to say something that I find interesting but she's lost the plot, or
(b) It's porn--which is fine, but isn't story-oriented as I'd expected based on that first book. So I've been buying her books expecting the wrong thing.

I do think her somewhat evil heroes, very (on-stage) sexual villains, and evil-sexy-fairy-godmother Tamara are distinctive and an interesting outlier in the genre. There's something there that I'm glad to see in print, because I don't think it's pure porn in the exploitive sense--I do think she brings an interesting perspective to some difficult tensions in romance. But I stopped enjoying the books a while ago.

Jill D. said...

Wow, what a very intriguing post! I happen to love McKenna. She is what I like to call my guilty pleasure. I know I shouldn’t enjoy her books, but I do. I just eat them up. One of the things that I enjoy most about her books is the drastic power play between the hero and heroine. I like that the women are normal, not out kicking ass everyday, but when faced with a challenge they step up to the plate. I happen to like that the men are possessive and dominant. I love that they all fall so hard for their women. Another thing that I love about McKenna is that sex is integral to the relationship, therefore integral to the story. She does have a tendency to use crude sex words. I feel that this is in keeping with the whole caveman thing she has going on with the men. It’s a little campy and over-the-top, but it works for me.

What I don’t like is the villain’s point of view and the villain sex. I am in complete agreement with you on that. I don’t want to read about the villain and all his perversions. It totally grosses me out!

Great post Meriam! I am always curious to see what you are going to post next.

Meriam said...

RfP, I think you've managed to articulate in a few paragraphs, what I couldn't manage in an entire post.

(I like a degree of transgressiveness in a book--e.g. sometimes a Susan Johnson or Robin Schone or Bertrice Small can make me uncomfortable in a way that makes me think.)

Yes, this is what initially thrilled me about my first McKenna - Out of Control. It helped that Margot wasn't quite the pushover some of the other heroines were, and that Davy, for a McKenna hero, wasn't a total caveman. Still, something about the hyper-intensity and the boundary pushing, combined with the 'high-concept' plotting and over-the-top villainy seemed very fresh.

What you say about the evil heroes and sexual villains is also interesting. I wonder how deliberate it was, for example, that the sex between the skanky villains and the main couple was almost identical in its domination themes.

For example. Evil Villain Matheus and his mistress Diana have lots of athletic sex, and it is heavily implied that Diana likes it rough ([he] slammed into her with the unchecked violence she craved] When he slaps her, it is followed by a passionate kiss etc etc. Matheus is described as oversexed and an adrenaline junky.

Similarly, Nick (the hero): he knew... what got her off. She liked it when he came on strong, liked being overwhelmed. She liked extreme. Almost as much as he liked dishing it out to her...

There's not much separating the two men in their sexual proclivities. I guess the only difference is that Nick loves Becca, wants to 'protect' her, whilst Matheusholds Diana in contempt and has no such protective instincts (quite the opposite).

Also like Tamara as the evil-sexy-fairy-godmother!

Meriam said...

Jill, thanks! I'm just glad I didn't bore you half way through with my endless ramblings.

She is what I like to call my guilty pleasure. I know I shouldn’t enjoy her books, but I do. I just eat them up.

Oh, me too.

I like that the women are normal, not out kicking ass everyday, but when faced with a challenge they step up to the plate.

Yes, I actually start out really liking the heroines, but by the end of the story, I often feel like they've let the hero get away with too much? Like, in Hot Night, when the bone-headed hero willfully wrecks the heroines career - not because he was trying to 'protect' her/ her life was in danger, but because he was jealous and insecure. The heroine, whose name I forget, never called him on it. And he was never repentant. I closed the novel feeling absolutely disgusted, because I felt he didn't value or respect her as a person, he just wanted to sleep with her.

But I still read the next McKenna!

I don’t want to read about the villain and all his perversions.

Yeah, I think you can create some really twisted and unpleasant characters, but I thought McKenna got a little gratuitous with Yury the Paedophile and Zhoglo the sexual predator.

Jace said...

LOL Great review! I've never read McKenna, and I don't think I ever will.

RfP said...

I haven't read it, so I'll take your word that something in the sex objectifies her, but is it due to the words or the hero's focus? The words themselves don't bother me--rather a pussy than a shy proof of innocence. Or an oozing love canal. But yes, sometimes heroines (and heroes) get depersonalized by a focus on body parts--or other descriptors, like great parent potential or a powerful businessman persona.

"What you say about the evil heroes and sexual villains is also interesting. I wonder how deliberate it was, for example, that the sex between the skanky villains and the main couple was almost identical in its domination themes."

I read it as deliberate. The books push on those themes (power, trust, distance, good things having an ugly side) in every relationship they depict (hero/heroine, villain/villain, villain/victim, mother/daughter, brother/brother). It succeeds at continually upping the stakes for those power plays (which is part of the reason that it sometimes goes too far for some of us).

Have you read her All About Men collection? All three stories have the same distubing elements. E.g. in Something Wild abused runaway girlfriend lets stranger on motorcycle stalk her for several days, and finally has sex with him in a remote wooded area. On nights two and three or thereabouts, biker gets angry and forces the sex. Biker stays angry and physically threatening until the happily ever after. Classic McKenna squick. But Meltdown is quite telling. It has similarly challenging elements but also a *lot* of dialogue about why the hero/heroine act the way they do and why it works for them.

RfP said...

Er. I think I combined two sentences, or left out one, or just lost my mind. Sorry, I don't remember where that 3rd paragraph was originally headed.

Meriam said...

I read it as deliberate. The books push on those themes (power, trust, distance, good things having an ugly side) in every relationship they depict (hero/heroine, villain/villain, villain/victim, mother/daughter, brother/brother). It succeeds at continually upping the stakes for those power plays (which is part of the reason that it sometimes goes too far for some of us).

You are giving McKenna way more credit that I did. And you've backed me into a corner: I guess I'll have to read her next book now, to see if I agree...


In fact, I have read All About Men, and that first story really distressed me. To some extent, they all did, but that one was particularly jarring. (But then, if she's upping the stakes very deliberately, is it me, the reader, who isn't getting it? Should I be setting aside my 'politics' when I read her? She's writing fantasies, not real life).

I wonder at McKenna. She's found a formula that works for her, and it almost works for me, but always falls short. I keep reading her because I come so close to thinking, yes, this is what I want to read, and then the book happens and I'm disappointed because this is not what I want to read, this is what I hate.

The closest she came was Davy's book (out of control?).

RfP said...

I have read All About Men, and that first story really distressed me.

Me too. It hit so many yikes buttons, I was incredulous at the ways she kept managing to make it worse. But I thought the second story was less overtly scary, and made explicit some less porntastic motivations for the power dynamics and sense of being unsafe with a lover.

You are giving McKenna way more credit that I did.

I'm not sure what that means. I didn't mean to imply that she deserved credit for attacking misogynist power dynamics. Often I think quite the opposite! But in terms of layering tension, symbolism and disturbingness, I think she's very successful.

if she's upping the stakes very deliberately, is it me, the reader, who isn't getting it? Should I be setting aside my 'politics' when I read her?

Perhaps this is why I didn't understand what you meant by "credit". I don't see her writing a subversive feminist manifesto... if that's what you mean by politics. (If that's what she intends, the way she goes about it is so challenging that I'm not getting half of it.) I think an author can be deliberate about evoking an effect, without also intending a specific social message.

The closest she came was Davy's book (out of control?).

I found that book more full of icky relationship dynamics than any of the others! You mentioned it's the first of hers that you read--that may explain our different reactions. I was rocked back by the first one I read (Behind Closed Doors), but the excitement had modulated into more of a fascinated wince by the time OoC came out.

Meriam said...

I'm not sure what that means. I didn't mean to imply that she deserved credit for attacking misogynist power dynamics. Often I think quite the opposite! But in terms of layering tension, symbolism and disturbingness, I think she's very successful.

I meant the latter: I wasn't giving her enough credit in terms of being aware of what she's doing / the effect she wants to create.

Substitute my crude use of the word 'politics' for 'feminist sensibilities.' Should I be setting these aside when I read Mckenna, since McKenna is writing stories that deliberately seek to explore the space between what we're comfortable with and where we draw the line (?) (is that stretching?)

I think an author can be deliberate about evoking an effect, without also intending a specific social message.

Yes, indeed.

I found that book more full of icky relationship dynamics than any of the others!

Oh, no! I must reread and compare. I thought Behind Closed Doors was icky, because I hated Seth, with his creepy surveillance and how hot and cold he turned (that whole, is she good, is she bad thing really annoys me, particularly when the female protagonist is as patently angelic, virginal and butter-wouldn't-melt as Raine).

RfP said...

I wasn't giving her enough credit in terms of being aware of what she's doing / the effect she wants to create.

Maybe you were. I think the force with which she reinforces those tensions is certainly not a coincidence. (Could that first story in AAM be that "off" by happenstance? Of course it *could*, but oy!) But I can't say for sure that the process is fully articulated. We don’t have a blog telling us she’s deliberately creating a parallel or adding tension here, exploring deep societal issues there.

Should I be setting these aside when I read Mckenna, since McKenna is writing stories that deliberately seek to explore the space between what we're comfortable with and where we draw the line (?) (is that stretching?)

I’m not sure whether her writing is that activist. There's deliberately constructing a story that explores what *we the public* are uncomfortable with, versus writing a story that *the author* finds personally moving or titillating regardless of its potential inconsistencies. Thinking about her stories en masse, part of my reaction is that they come across as fetish, i.e. more "I" than "we", more personal than political... to deliberately evoke a contradictory phrase ;) I think they have meaning to her--they're not just masturbatory. But I'm not sure whether she constructs them to work out some specific broader message.

On setting aside one's beliefs to read something challenging... in a way we must do that constantly. So many romances are only covertly feminist, or partly yea and partly nay, or not at all but tell the story provocatively. I'm not normally militant about fiction espousing my beliefs. The interesting thing that I like and dislike is the way these books push certain issues to front/center.

I thought Behind Closed Doors was icky, because I hated Seth, with his creepy surveillance and how hot and cold he turned

I agree with those points, and I think all her books can probably be read like that. That's why I think the key may be which book you(I) read first. I suspect that for me, almost any of her books could have seemed potentially fresh and challenging, and my discomfort might have risen in the same fashion after reading any two or three more. OTOH Jill D. (above) sees the squicky aspects and, like us, likes the stories both for and despite them, but perhaps doesn't have the rising discomfort. What's our problem?

Meriam said...

OTOH Jill D. (above) sees the squicky aspects and, like us, likes the stories both for and despite them, but perhaps doesn't have the rising discomfort. What's our problem?

Good question... and not one I can easily answer, except, for some reason, I expect something *more* from her. Not sure what, just that I keep waiting for the penny to drop.

I don't know!

BTW, have you stopped reading McKenna? (Have you simply not read Extreme Danger yet, or are you planning not to?)

RfP said...

Part of my reaction is simply about the writing, and all the layers of added tension. As I said above, it's her style of "continually upping the stakes for those power plays (which is part of the reason that it sometimes goes too far for some of us)."

I'm a wimp; always have been. If a foreboding film score keeps increasing the tension, at some point it gets to be too much for me. At about that point, others in the audience start to laugh--the film's become so extreme that it's absurd.

The way McKenna trowels on the layers of implicit+explicit threat does something similar. The tension starts out high enough to be gripping (squicky and good), then gets so high that it's no longer pleasurable (squick overload), or even goes past squick to absurdity.

There's a more social/moral dimension to my reaction too. Maybe we can parse that another time :)

RfP said...

Oh, and

BTW, have you stopped reading McKenna? (Have you simply not read Extreme Danger yet, or are you planning not to?)

I stopped "deliberately" reading her a couple of books ago. That is, if I happen to see her latest book available at the library, I might pick it up. I probably won't this time, though. More of the same isn't appealing at the moment. I only downloaded All About Men because I ran across it in the library's e-catalog, and I was curious about her novellas--being a short story fan, yknow.

Meriam said...

I suspect I'll pick up her Tamara novel, despite myself. I suspect - perhaps unfairly - the character I've come to know will be disempowered and virtually unrecognisable, but I've got to see it for myself.

After that - who knows. Maybe I can train myself to say No.

RfP said...

I hadn't thought about a Tamara novel. I'm not sure I want to know more of her history--the saga of "What made Tamara who she is" has too much room for squick. But it would be interesting if she got a story in which she was the paranoid, control-freaky ass-kicker in the relationship.

T hasn't been disempowered so far... or has she? In the last McKenna I read (Edge of Midnight?) the McClouds thought she seemed twitchy and skinny. Ruh roh.

RfP said...

You made me curious enough to pick this up at the library last night. (Perverse, I know.) The chain-her-up-for-the-madman scene is jaw-dropping. How moronic when he had plenty of backup who could have watched her. So: the real point was to terrify her?

You'd convinced me to read Tamara's story, but I'm not so sure now that she's going gooshy.

Meriam said...

So: the real point was to terrify her?

I can think of no other reason than punishment.

I'm not so sure now that she's going gooshy.

But she got a baby!