The NPR podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour, had a great episode recently all about the romance genre. Just today, there was a bunch of Twitter discussion about the genre in reaction to an article posted to the Mary Sue. And all that reminded me that I should do a catch-up post on some of the romance novels I’ve been reading recently.
Author: Courtney Milan
I first started reading Milan last year, and loved her interesting characters, feminist and social justice sensibility, and especially her smart smart writing. This year, I read some more of Milan’s Brothers Sinister historical romance series including A Kiss for Midwinter, The Countess Conspiracy, and The Suffragette Scandal.
Of the three, The Suffragette Scandal is the one most likely to land on my all-time favorites of Milan’s books. The novel features Frederica “Free” Marshall, a Cambridge graduate from Girton College, and a suffragette who publishes a paper about women, by women and for women. Edward Clark has just returned from years in France to help a friend who is being hounded by Edward’s brother – a brother who deliberately cut Edward off from assistance during the Franco-Prussian war. It turns out Edward’s brother has the larger goal of shutting down Free Marshall’s press, so Edward seeks to ally with Free against a common enemy. In the course of events, they fall in love.
I was sorry when this book ended as I became so fond of this activist power couple. I loved the dynamic between Edward, who is disillusioned and cynical at the start of the book and Free, who is not naive, but who still sees hope in the small differences she can make for women’s lives through her work. As in her other books, Milan’s characters refreshingly take the direct course in moments when one expects them to beat around the bush.
“Which of my myriad flaws is making you uneasy, Miss Marshall?” He gave her a long, slow smile. “Is it my arrogant conceit or my wicked sense of humor?”
“Neither,” Free answered. “I rather like both of those. It’s just that you’re trying to use my attraction to you to set me on edge.” She smiled at him. “It won’t work. I’ve been attracted to you since the moment I laid eyes on you, and it hasn’t made me stupid once.”
I held back from including a longer excerpt, so you’ll have to take my word that the conversation continues to gets very interesting and wonderful from there.
Along with the Brothers Sinister books, I also read Courtney Milan’s first contemporary novel, Trade Me. Because I trust her as an author, I was willing to take on a book with this premise: after a blistering debate about income inequality in their college seminar class, Blake Reynolds, a tech billionaire’s son, offers to trade places with Tina Chen for a month. Chen greets this offer with the kind of incredulity that is normal – an early indicator that Milan is able to inject a surprising amount of plausibility to the plot.
Trade Me ends up being quite serious in some of the plot developments, but there’s enough humor in the banter to keep things light in the balance. The romance itself was good, though perhaps not as well-built as those in Milan’s historicals; there’s plenty in Trade Me to balance out any slight disappointment in that regard. Early in the book, Tina delivers this masterful set-down to Blake’s father that made me so happy. I hope I can do it justice with a short excerpt. Context: Tina is at dinner with Blake and Blake’s father. Tina and Blake are pretending to be boyfriend and girlfriend for reasons that are plausible but I won’t explain here. Blake’s father has offered Tina money to break up with Blake.
“You’ve admitted that you’d sell him out,” he snaps. “That at some point, money is more important than he is.”
“You’ve admitted the same thing. If I’m a faithless whore because I’ll take a check to break up with Blake, you’re the asshole who values your company and lifestyle more than your son.”
“That’s not just my company. That’s my life. It’s his life. It’s -”
“Oh, and you think it’s just money for me?” I glare at him. “You think that you’d give me fifty thousand dollars and I’d spend it all on shoes and diamond-studded cat collars? Fifty thousand dollars would pay for the rest of my college tuition. It would buy my dad a lawyer so that the next time his knee acted up, he could finally get disability instead of scrambling to find some job he can manage. It would make it so I didn’t have to work for the next year and could concentrate on my schoolwork. That’s a really ugly double standard, Mr. Reynolds. When money exists to make your life more pleasant, it’s not just money. But when it’s my family and my dreams at stake, it’s just pieces of green paper.”
Blake smiles softly.
His father reaches across the table and flicks Blake’s forehead. “Stop grinning.”
“No way.” Blake is smiling harder. “She’s kicking your ass. This is the best day ever.”
So if you’re a Milan fan, and have been wary of reading Trade Me because it’s not a historical romance, don’t be. Jump right in.
Author: Julie James
Speaking of contemporary, I recently read Julie James’ It Happened One Wedding, #5 in the FBI/US Attorney series. Back in May, Amber from Buried By Books tweeted a quote from Julie James where James said she likes putting Alpha heroes with Alpha heroines because it results in a lot of conflict and tension. I love that she puts Alpha heroines in her books because I enjoy reading about heroines who like their careers, and work hard in demanding professions. In an earlier book in the FBI/US Attorney series, I wasn’t sure which was more swoonworthy: the romantic scenes or the scene where the heroine successfully negotiates for a promotion. In It Happened One Wedding, the heroine is a director of a private equity firm. I like that Julie James always does her research so that the heroine’s job title is never just a short-cut way of saying she’s in a high-powered job. You get a fairly plausible idea of what’s involved in being a private equity firm director without it dragging the narrative down.
I do wish that the characters weren’t quite so uniformly, universally gorgeous and well-dressed, and generally well-off. It’s lot of pencil skirts and high heels and tony restaurants (nothing wrong with pencil skirts and high heels, but it’s basically the professional wardrobe description of every one of the heroines). But I forgive that for the series’ other merits – especially the humor that is sown throughout.
Author: Mary Balogh
I’m new to Mary Balogh, who writes historical romance. My library had The Escape available as an e-book. Julie James’ books aside, I often tire of Alpha heroes in romance, and The Escape has such a lovely beta hero in Ben. Ben is a disabled war veteran uncertain about his next stage in life. Reluctant to oust his younger brother from the family estate, he travels to visit with his sister in the north of England. There he meets Samantha, a widow who is also uncertain about her next steps, and whose in-laws have nearly cut her off from friendly society. Learning of Samantha’s plan to escape to some inherited property in Wales, Ben offers to escort her there.
There was a nice quiet quality to this romance, and the Welsh setting in the latter half of the book was an enjoyable aspect. (Mary Balogh grew up in Wales though she lives now in Canada.)
I went on to read Balogh’s Slightly Wicked and A Summer to Remember. The former was fine, but had some plot elements that were not my jam – though the heroine’s outwitting of her scheming relatives was an awesome moment. The latter book was sweet in the best way, and had a charming non-alpha hero.
The Pop Culture Happy Hour mentioned a few other authors I may try out, such as Eloisa James, Loretta Chase, Sonali Dev, and Beverly Jenkins. Have you read any of these authors? Let me know in the comments.