2014 – a summary of my reading, contemporary and quirky romance edition

Ok, I know I was supposed to post this earlier in the week, but then my kids got the flu. You know how it goes. Read on for my favorite reads in contemporary romance and the nonexistent subgenre “romance novels that are quirky, perhaps a little nerdy, and also don’t have a lot of sex.” Stay tuned in a couple of days for my final roundup post on erotic romance, erotica, and the two non-romance, non-erotica books I read (and liked) in 2014.

Contemporary romance:

Between the Sheets by Molly O’Keefe
The Chocolate Touch / The Chocolate Temptation by Laura Florand
Laugh by Mary Ann Rivers
Still Life with Strings by L.H. Cosway
Private Politics by Emma Barry
Truly by Ruthie Knox

Look at the list above. These ladies are my auto-buy list for contemporary romance (and, in Molly O’Keefe’s case, for historical as well). Between the Sheets is my favorite of all of O’Keefe’s contemporary romances (that I’ve read: I’ve been saving some of the backlist to savor later on) because its characters just sang to me, especially Shelby. She’s one of those difficult heroines I treasure — her choices may not be the ones “nice” women make, but they’re the ones that make sense for her, even when they’re unhealthy. Ty and Shelby’s story is not lighthearted, but O’Keefe gave me (because, yes, this book is all for me. Back it up, bitches.) a story that was believably gritty and intense without being depressing (despite its forays into elder care, school bullies, incarcerated parents, and the ramifications of abuse).

On a somewhat more lighthearted note, Florand’s The Chocolate Touch and The Chocolate Temptation (along with the other six Florand books I read last year) provided 100% of my hot, French, chocolatier hero needs. Kim and I went gaga for Touch and probably each read it three or four times in a few months (and we’ll probably read it at least once more, soon, because we still need to write our dueling discussion on it.), and Tasha and I discussed Temptation together. If you read the last roundup post, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a sucker for heroines, but it’s Florand’s heroes who always shine. Don’t get me wrong, her heroines are great, but Florand seems keenly aware that there is great power in a hot guy who smells strongly of chocolate, and she capitalizes on that power.

Kim and I reviewed Laugh, so I won’t add too much to my obscene word count here. I loved it for all of its details — the farming and Nina’s shorts, for instance — and for its portrayal of relationships in all their messy glory. Rivers’ characters, Sam grappling with his ADHD and Nina with her grief and fear for her friend, don’t have an easy time of it on their road to love, but sometimes the best things are hard-fought. Tasha said Still Life with Strings was good, so I read it and sent shouty texts to Kim that went like this: “KIM. KIM. KIM. KIM. Did you see Tasha’s post about Still Life with Strings? Have you read it yet? DOOOO IITTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT.” And she did. Lucky me, she loved it, too. (Would have been awkward, otherwise.) Ahem. This book is a tad unconventional (in all the best ways) matching a Stradivarius-wielding, slightly depressive, violinist hero and a bartending, street performing, avant-garde art enthusiast heroine. Mostly, I loved how fun it is and how it doesn’t shy away from class differences & the assumptions of the economically secure.

Private Politics is the second in Barry’s The Easy Part series (which is part The West Wing and part Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — especially the first book in the series — and all romance gold). Private Politics concerns the masks we wear and the stereotypes that can define our lives and limit our chances, if we let them. So blond, perfect, socialite Alyse, used to using her looks and image to get things done (and to being undervalued), learns how to take herself seriously and to demand the same of others. Liam, a somewhat soft, nice Jewish boy, infatuated with Alyse, transitions from lovesick doormat to equal partner (demanding respect along the way). My favorite part was Liam’s mom, but that’s neither here nor there.

Finally, there’s Truly. Now, I’ll be honest. Technically, I read this book for the first time in 2013. (It was serialized on Wattpad), but I read it as a complete book when it was released in 2014, so… I’m counting it anyway. While I’m being honest, I’ve got to tell you that Truly has two of the most potent pieces of Kelly’s reading catnip imaginable: a tall heroine matched with a grumpy hero. For reals, I love those two things so much that my bias is out of this world. But wait, there’s more: Meg starts as an extreme case of mid-western politeness and learns how to be more difficult (and more true to herself) in the wilderness of New York City (and on the road back to Wisconsin); Ben, a grumpy, beekeeping, former chef, alone and adrift, makes what peace he can with his past and does some extraordinary groveling to make up for all the times he was a douchepony. Of course I loved it.

Books I keep trying to get people who don’t like romance to read (a.k.a. quirky romance):

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
The Girl with the Cat Tattoo / The Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Teresa Weir
Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid

So, here’s the thing. I’m a romance novel enthusiast: I read romance almost exclusively, and I think that most people, if they could get past the mental image of Fabio (oh that we could all get past that image) and the idea that romance fiction — in its entirety — is guilty pleasure reading (Don’t get me wrong… there are things I read that I feel deeply conflicted about enjoying. That just proves to me that I’m doing it right.), could find themselves actually liking a romance novel or two. Romance is frequently not the problem. After all, it’s what makes pretty much any story ever interesting and relevant to humans. Buuuuuuuut…. highly descriptive sex scenes? Now, those are definitely not everybody’s cup of tea.

For those of you bravely reading this blog, certain that you’ll never, ever want to read any of the books I’m talking about because velvet-covered steel and dewy petals (and every synonym for “thrust”), this section is for you.

Attachments is a largely epistolary novel that weaves a story around emails exchanged between Jennifer and Beth, two employees at a newspaper, and narrative about Lincoln, the guy who’s been hired to monitor workplace email and ensure compliance with the company’s email policy. It’s funny and strange and ever so slightly creepy (but the creepiness didn’t bother me so much because Lincoln felt so conflicted about it). I loved it because (1) it was set around Y2K, (2) Beth and Jennifer’s emails are such an accurate depiction of friendship, and (3) it managed to have a totally believable romance even though the characters don’t actually meet until the very end.

The Girl with the Cat Tattoo is a romance and (kind of) murder mystery mostly narrated by the coolest cat ever. I’m a thwarted cat lady (my husband is allergic, so no kitties for me; otherwise, I’d happily end up with a houseful of cats and litter boxes), so the cat narrator appealed to me. The instant I finished it, I purchased The Geek with the Cat Tattoo, which I liked even better (no murder mystery to distract the story from the characters; Geek has a painfully shy human matched with a cat who controls minds and helps bring the reluctant hero and heroine together.).

Neanderthal Seeks Human self-describes as a “smart romance.” It begins in a toilet stall and follows the exploits of its narrator, Janie, an awkward architect/accountant/mathemagician who is two steps shy of autism spectrum. Janie’s POV is incredibly fun to experience, even when she misses all the obvious clues. Three reasons I love Janie: Panty Dance Parties, the way she uses the knitting group as a focus group to determine appropriate emotional responses, and her use of the moniker Sir Handsome McHotpants to refer to Quinn, the hero.  Honestly, I loved all the Knitting Series books, especially Love Hacked, but Neanderthal Seeks Human has a closed bedroom door, so I’m recommending it here. The later books in the series have significantly more sexy times (because their narrators aren’t Janie).

I hope you enjoyed this installment of my 2014 roundup. If you didn’t…

2014 – a summary of my reading, historical romance edition

2014 was a busy year. My eldest started Kindergarten, my youngest hit her stride of the terrible, terrible threes (the twos have got nuthin’ on the threes. Yeesh. I’m a little surprised we all survived it.), things at work were consistently nuts, and I did a lot of things at that place where I volunteer a lot of my time (vague much, Kelly?). Oh, and I read a shit ton of books. Some of them were sooooooooo good, some of them were not.

I’m super disorganized; I don’t take notes when I read; and my memory (like anyone’s, if we’re being honest) tends to warp after a certain period of time, favoring the books I’ve loved recently to the ones I loved last January. All that to say, I’m not going to bother doing a formalized list of my favorite reads of the year. (Has anyone else noticed that, in my return to blogging, my voice is a bit more curmudgeonly? Damn kids get off my lawn! I just want to write about books over here *grumble grumble grumble* Ahem. I’ll try to be less ornery.)

Oh! And — because it’s already a week into January and most people in the book blogging world are much more timely than I — I’ve read a bunch of 2014 summary posts. So, if I’m copying your style (you know who you are), it’s because I think you’re awesome. And it’s late at night. Also, you do these things so much better than I do. Honestly. I applied some seriously half-assed organization and then alphabetized the books by title (because?). Then I wrote 1600 words about the first thirteen books on the list and realized I needed to split this shit up. Stay tuned for two more of these monster posts about all the books.

Right. So here are my favorite historical romances read in 2014. Not all of these books were published last year, but they’re all worth reading (again and again).

Historical romance – my first love:

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant
A Lily Among Thorns by Rose Lerner
Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex
Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare
The Secret Heart / The Lover’s Knot by Erin Satie
Seduced by Molly O’Keefe
Strangers at the Altar by Marguerite Kaye
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
Summer Chaparral by Genevieve Turner
Untamed by Anna Cowan

Y’all knew I love historical romance, right? I could happily do a top ten for 2014 from this list alone. A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong was one of my last reads of 2014 (and part of one of my best reading weeks ever, when I read 5 of the books on the above list). It’s a misadventure that starts with an ill-advised falcon purchase and ends with love, via a broken carriage, a loving community, and a dried apple pie. It is a celebration of compassion, family, community and love (and pie). A Lily Among Thorns is scrumptious, you guys. It’s got a former-courtesan-turned-innkeeper heroine (who’s also kind of a crime boss) matched with a grieving chemist. There is quite a lot of plot (in a good way), but my favorite scenes were the quieter moments between the characters. Honestly, though, it had me at Serena. She’s amazeballs.

I got a little bit manic after I finished Almost a Scandal. After her brother skips town to avoid joining the navy (the family business) the heroine assumes his identity and joins the navy in his place. (I need to put in some exclamation points here. !!!!!) The writing is rich in metaphor and a perfect complement to this story about identity, integrity and how little your genitals have to do with your ability to use trigonometry to chart a course. Kim and I wrote about Romancing the Duke earlier in the year, but — nearly twelve months later — it’s still one of my favorite books. It’s a perfect balance of wild humor and poignant emotion. (You know what, while I’m on the subject of Tessa Dare’s books, I should give a shout-out to Say Yes to the Marquess because cake. A whole room of cake. I happen to like the heroine of RtD a bit better, which tips the scales for me, but SYttM has 500% more cake. So.)

I read The Secret Heart and The Lover’s Knot during that epic reading week. The Secret Heart brings together a duke’s heir who’d rather be prizefighting and a money-challenged heroine who’d rather be dancing ballet (and avoiding her mostly horrible family). Together they solve a crime, have angry sex and fight the status quo with the power of ‘I don’t even give a fuck.” I loved it. The Lover’s Knot continues the series in a new locale with a memory-challenged ink merchant (former heiress) and the newly-minted duke to whom she was engaged for one whopping night, ten years prior. I’m going to review both books in the next week (ish), so I’ll leave it at that. Seduced is straight up beautiful, set in the post-bellum American West (Colorado, I think), with characters whose lives have been ravaged by the war. Miss Bates recommends this one, and I really can’t improve on her thoughts about it.

Strangers at the Altar is (I think) one of Kaye’s best books (and y’all might have noticed that I’m kind of a fan of hers). It’s a marriage of convenience story involving an advice columnist heroine matched with an engineer laird. My favorite moments are the parts where the heroine attempts to pen bedroom advice that won’t overset her readers, but — really — the whole thing was great. The Suffragette Scandal makes the best use of the exclamation point EVER, and it has my favorite of all of Milan’s characters (and that’s saying something, because Jonas from A Kiss for Midwinter set the bar until now). Free is, like all of Milan’s recent heroines, a force to be reckoned with but one who exists in a world that silences and obscures her (for her own safety, of course). The difference with Free is she asserts that it is the system that is wrong, not her, and that she can (and will) change it, woman by woman, and man by man. And Edward is… well, just read it, and you’ll see.

Summer Chaparral is at once a sweeping epic of time and place and a deeply personal tale of family loyalties and individual needs. It is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet (but without the downer ending and meddling Friar), set in the San Jacinto mountains of southern California at the end of the nineteenth century, and it grapples with systemic racism, urbanization, and reconciliation in subtly beautiful prose. Untamed was the recipient of a lot of buzz (some positive, some negative) in 2013, and I honestly have no idea why I didn’t get around to reading it until the last week of December (in that epic reading week). I happened to love it, even though it does some taboo things. You can’t talk about the book without mentioning that the hero spends more than half of the book dressed as a woman, but I — true to my nature — thought the heroine was the more remarkable and interesting character. Love it or hate it (and, yeah, I’m late to the party), every reader of historical romance should check this one out just to see where they fall on the continuum. (And it has adorable pet pig antics. Just saying.)

Assuming you got through all that, you now know why I decided to split this recap into three posts. Stay tuned over the next couple of days for my thoughts on all my favorite contemporary romances (including a few quirky ones that I think might appeal to folk who find sex scenes uncomfortable to read). Finally, I’ll do a separate post talking about my favorite erotic romances, works of erotica, and “other” books (one nonfiction, one…. poetry anthology/humor??).

When books make you go hmmm

While I certainly do not possess Jane Bennett’s sweetness of temper, angelic goodness, or locally famous beauty, I do have her habit of thinking well of people, making excuses for their less-than-savory behavior. I worry sometimes that this habit spills over into my reading, making me — perhaps — a sympathetic and uncritical reader. It’s not that I turn off my brain or fail to notice a book’s issues, exactly, yet I struggle with a reticence to expound on the things that didn’t work in favor of the things that did. If you’ve read more than four or five posts on this blog you realize that this reticence does not altogether stop me from making critical remarks, but it is difficult for me to be critical.

Perhaps now you understand why there’s been so much silence around here. I had things going on elsewhere in my life, and I couldn’t spare the expense of energy required to push through my inclination to just love everything (and ignore the things I can’t love). Well, I had two weeks off work to rest (including a few days that were completely free of obligations. It was wonderful, and I should make it more of a habit to take self-care days off from time to time..

Anyway, a while back, I read He’s No Prince Charming by debut author Elle Daniels, and I wanted (so much) to love it, but… well, read on.

A wounded beast . . .

It took Marcus Bradley forever to find a suitable bride. And then he lost her—all because some meddling matchmaker with a crazy notion about “true love” helped her elope with another man. Now, to save his sister from a terrible marriage alliance, he needs a replacement—an heiress, to be exact . . . and he knows just the woman to help him find one.

A spirited beauty . . .

Danielle Strafford believes everyone deserves a fairytale ending—even the monstrously scarred and notoriously brooding Marquis of Fleetwood. Not that he’s left her a choice. If she doesn’t help him secure a wife—by any means necessary—he’ll reveal her scandalous secrets.

A passion that will consume them both

The more time Marcus spends with Danielle, the less interested he is in any other woman. But the Beast must do the impossible: keep from losing his heart to a Beauty he is destined to lose.

As a reader of genre fiction, I know what kinds of stories appeal to me (generally) and which do not. This reading approach isn’t limited to genre romance, of course. Some SFF readers will prefer books that highlight adventure, perhaps, or are set in space, or depict alternate realities. In my romance fiction reading, I find the following tropes are safe bets (or are particularly interesting, if not necessarily “safe”):

  1. Fairy tale-based stories, especially beauty and the beast stories;
  2. Mythology-based stories or ones that draw on elements from the classics;
  3. Marriage of convenience, secret baby, friends to lovers, or unrequited love plots;
  4. The following character tropes: wounded hero, bluestocking heroine (this one is frequently problematic, but I find it interesting), tall heroines (for reasons), virgin heroes and/or experienced heroines, heroines who run their own businesses; grumpy heroes; characters based on Austen characters;
  5. Cross-class romances and/or other types of imbalances.

I’m sure there’s more, but that’s a long enough list for now. Anyway, just from reading the blurb, I could see that He’s No Prince Charming is a beauty and the beast story with a wounded hero (who might also be grumpy). That was enough to prompt me to request the book on Netgalley. Within the first few pages, I learned the heroine runs her own business (a clandestine service aiding women seeking to escape from unwelcome betrothals by eloping with their true loves; she runs this business out of a bookstore operated by her first clients.). So, you know, the book has quite a few ticks in its favor as far as my reading biases are concerned. Also, it’s Daniels’ first book, and I harbor a soft spot for debut novels.

So what went wrong, you ask? Be warned, there be spoilers ahead.

  1. The premise, that Marcus needs to marry an heiress in order to protect his sister from her betrothal to a dangerous man, takes a strange turn after Marcus sees Danni help his betrothed elope with another man; Marcus figures the only solution is to blackmail Danni into helping him kidnap an heiress. Look, I get that beauty and the beast stories pretty much always involve some element of Stockholm Syndrome, but I have a hard time caring about characters (that’s right: both of ’em) who break into a woman’s home, drug her, and carry her off to a waiting carriage. That Danni ends up knocked out and kidnapped herself doesn’t, ultimately, make that big a difference to me. She’s still a kidnapper.
  2. What happens next? All the things. On the road to Gretna Green, the villain hero and his victims are set upon by highwaymen (gypsy highwaymen, at that), their coachman is shot, and the true victim is kidnapped (again) by the highwaymen. Before the gypsies abscond with her, they threaten her with gang rape, but — you know — in a fun way. It’s all very lighthearted. The villains hero and heroine, take off on foot to kidnap her back rescue her, but they have no idea where they’re going and, after a storm blows up, they take shelter in an abandoned cabin, and the hero has an epic panic attack. Kissing happens, because reasons. The next day, the heroine is nearly trampled by a horse, but eventually they make their way to an inn. Over the next few days, they search for the gypsies while running from soldiers (who are trying to rescue the kidnap victim); the villain hero is shot (by the soldiers), but somehow they still manage to find the gypsy camp to re-kidnap rescue her. Eventually (of course), Marcus is arrested for kidnapping an Admiral’s daughter, but Danni convinces her MP father to reverse the charges against him (because love). It stretches plausibility that any all of those events would occur in one story. Kidnapping and highwaymen? and being shot?
  3. Danni makey no sensey. She believes in love matches so sincerely that she runs a business helping hapless women escape loveless marriages, yet she considers herself as good as betrothed to an earl she doesn’t love because she wants to please her depressive father. She goes along with Marcus’ blackmail and helps him kidnap the Admiral’s daughter, yet she thinks it’s wrong. At some point, Danni realizes that she loves Marcus (because?), but she’s reluctant to admit to him that she’s all the heiress he needs (because?). (What results is a dilemma for Marcus that the reader knows is bollocks: he thinks he has to fight his attraction to Danni in order to save his sister, but readers know that the only impediment is Danni’s dishonesty.) After Danni and Marcus’ awkward sex scene, she admits her heiress state, but he gets arrested almost immediately, so there’s no resolution.
  4. Oh, God, the ending. Danni manages to convince her father to have the charges against Marcus dropped (because love, but — really — the charges are absolutely just. He kidnapped that girl!). But then…. nothing. The ending peters off into anticlimax until the characters finally have the big I love you conversation. Of course, who cares?
  5. There’s a mystery fairy godmother (who may or may not be Marcus’ living — or even dead — mother). She provides a very strange deus ex machina via ballgowns but is otherwise completely unexplained.
  6. I  also had issues with voice (characters cracking unfunny jokes when they should be appalled by certain events).

Soooo, yeah. Why did I keep reading? I have no idea.

I was tempted just to ignore the book, because I honestly couldn’t think of anything nice to say about it (other than that I should have liked it, which isn’t all that positive, actually). But then I wondered, why does that matter? Do I need to be balanced? Do I need or want to be so stifled by my disinclination to give offense (unless I’m thoroughly pissed off by something) that I say nothing at all? And who would I be offending? What’s the point of blogging about books if I’m going to write only about the ones I loved, the ones I liked with some reservations, or the ones that made me Yosemite-Sam angry?

It’s all well and good to be a Jane Bennett in the world, to be easy-going and patient with others, but it’s not a rational way to read books. And, honestly, I don’t read books that way. Bad writing, strange plots, and questionable content stick out, and even though I finish nearly all the books I start, I do frequently regret my decision to keep reading. All of these things (and more) belong in book discussions. While I’m too tired right now to prove it, I think there must be a logical fallacy in assuming that kindness and honesty are mutually exclusive.

So, there it is. I’m really hoping that this is the end of my hiatus (and cowardice), because I read 200 books in 2014, and I think it’s time I started talking about (some of) them.

* FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley via NetGalley for review consideration. Somewhat obviously, my opinion is my own. *