As a rule, I don’t read romance. The closest I get is your standard slow burn secondary plot device, and, of course, the dreaded, unwanted YA love triangle. I do have vague memories of reading a few Harlequin Teen books when I was a young teenager, as well as flipping through a lengthy romance novel set in Hawaii on a quest to root out the sex scenes, but all that was more than fifteen years ago. Yet here’s the thing: romance sells like hot cakes, my closest writer friends all write romance, and I just want to know what the fuss is about. Some of my favorite books have strong romantic threads, so surely if I dive into the genre, I can find something for me–right?
I asked a friend for recommendations, and she lent me a couple books by Johanna Lindsey. I started off with You Belong to Me, because it has a snowy estate on the cover and we’re close to Christmas-time right now.
Yup, that was my legitimate thought process. Yet I’m on page 173, and the book just feels so dated. We’re POV switching, and the third POV isn’t at all close–a major pet peeve of mine. There’s loads of telling and not enough showing, and for a book with lusty counts and kings and betrothals, these characters feel utterly modern.
Anna’s eyes flared. She could have hit him at that moment, something she would never in her life have considered doing–until now. “Dammit, Constantin, get to the heart of it before you drive me mad!”
So here’s what I’m going to do. Maybe I’ll finish the Johanna Lindsey book, maybe not, but I want to try an experiment. I found an article purporting to list the ten best romance novels, and I’m going to take a peek through the first page or two of each of them on Amazon, just like an agent would skim through the query sludge for that golden nugget. Yet there’s a bit more at stake here than having to force my way through some potentially cringey first pages. As per my husband’s excellent suggestion, I’ve decided to read the entire text of one of the best and one of the worst, as a way to give a couple of these books a truly fair shake and gain a better understanding of the juggernaut that is the romance genre.
Here’s my Christmas romance wishlist:
- First POV or close third
- Show, don’t tell
- Just a touch of corny–legitimately witty repartee that is situationally appropriate is very much preferred
- If it’s a period piece, the writing and dialogue need to fit the setting. (Not looking for thees and thous necessarily, but definitely don’t want the characters to feel like they’re time travelers from 1995.)
So, prepare for a lengthy post. And here… we… go.
1. Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie
Once upon a time, Minerva Dobbs thought as she stood in the middle of a loud yuppie bar, the world was full of good men. She looked into the handsome face of the man she’d planned on taking to her sister’s wedding and thought, Those days are gone.
So we start off in the very first sentence of the book by breaking Rule #1–not pleased. The MC’s inner thoughts are alarmingly reminiscent of the I Dreamed a Dream lyrics from Les Misérables. Two paragraphs later we hear how “Min” wants to shove a swizzle stick through the handsome man’s heart–corny. I’m going to move along.
2. This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
- Is the author’s advance funded by brand deals? There are more brands in the first 250 words than in a Haruki Murakami novel: Ferrari, Lexus, Comme de Garçons, Prada, Volkswagon.
- Chicago’s football team is now called the Stars?? What is happening…?
“Oh, you pesky quarterback,” she muttered under her breath. “Someone needs to castrate you.”
Oh, isn’t joking about genital mutilation just hilarious and so, so romantical? On to the next.
3. Gallaghers of Ardmore Trilogy by Nora Roberts
I’m going to focus only on Jewels of the Sun here. Going to be honest–I have really high expectations, not only because this is Nora Freaking Roberts, who makes a bazillion dollars a year so she must be decent, but also because I’m a Gallagher, so I’ll be disappointed if this sucks.
… time passes …
All right, so she is definitely a better writer than the last two. The writing style doesn’t really appeal to me–too much internal thought, not enough initial action. We start the scene in the character’s head as she psychoanalyzes herself; truly it feels like the reader is floating in space as the character thinks, since there is no scene or action being described. But I can see why people would like this… It’s just not pulling me in.
4. A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux
This one is starting off strong! The third POV still isn’t close enough for my taste, but it is more thoughtfully done compared to some of the other books here. The author has a good voice, the details are interesting and fitting, and I’m even intrigued by the prologue, which was mercifully short, as a prologue should be. I read the four pages allowed me by Amazon before the preview text skips ahead. This might be an author to come back to.
5. Nine Rules To Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean
Awesome title. I really hope this one is good.
Some nice historical details here that feel fitting. I had to look up “cheroot,” and I’m still not 100% sure what the author means by “ton“–the stylish, aristocratic crowd the MC hangs out with, I’m assuming by the context.
“I never should have allowed my mother to pour me into this monstrosity,” she muttered to herself, looking down at the gown in question, at its too-tight waistline and its too-small bodice, unable to contain her breasts, which were a good deal larger than fashion dictated.
No issue with the focus on the boobage–I’m just not buying the dialogue. Nobody would talk to themselves like that aloud, even young English women in 1813. The third POV isn’t close enough. (My, how that’s becoming an oft-repeated refrain ’round these parts.) Moving on, regrettably.
6. The Duchess by Jude Deveraux
Excited for this one, based on the other Deveraux book above.
Okay, this author once again really seems to know what she is doing! There is some POV switching, which is always alarming to me, but at least it seems to be kept to a minimum. I wonder if that will change when the main love interest is introduced. I may be picking up this book or the other at the end of this experiment for a full read-through.
7. Whitehorn Woods by Maeve Binchy
Interested to see the tone of this book, since the article I’m getting these book recommendations from mentioned that this is technically not romance.
And… having now read about eight pages and then the blurb, this does really seem to be more literary fiction. Maybe it sorta qualifies as romance according to the woman who put together the list, but it’s not what I set out to read in the interests of this experiment, so on to number eight.
8. Three Nights of Sin by Anne Mallory
Look at that bodice-ripper cover. And still, still my husband was astonished when he first learned that much of romance is porn in book form.
Oh. Oh, finally. Here’s an author who knows how to write, who has a contemporary voice that still fits the early 1800s setting. Third POV is close and done artfully. There’s a style here, but it’s not so heavy that it takes away from us moving forward. I’d say the voice will feel very familiar to those who enjoy YA fantasy. The dialogue feels anchored and real…
His head tipped. “Surely Rookwood explained how I work. I rarely accept charity cases from members of the ton.”
Again, what is this “ton” thing? I have to say I did not expect I’d be encountering so much new vocabulary in this experiment!
Anyway, I’ll go ahead and put Anne Mallory squarely on my TBR list. At last, here’s a voice that seems like it won’t quash the romantic elements.
9. Caressa’s Knees by Annabel Joseph
Not the sexiest title I’ve ever heard. Knees? Also Caressa is such a strange name. I’m squinting at my computer right now, imagining someone with a caressing-the-knee fetish… That can’t possibly be what this is about–can it? Or, perhaps, about someone who spends a lot of time on their knees, in the pursuit of sexual pleasures?
Okay, let’s get to it. We start in media res, which is generally preferable to me than internal monologue. Aside from the Binchy non-romance up above and the brief prologue in the first Deveraux book, this is the only one of the bunch so far that has started with a male MC–interesting! The author has a good voice, and the characters featured in the first couple pages feel solidly real. I’m not connecting with the novel yet, but that’s a me thing, not a Caressa’s Knees thing. Still intrigued to know what the deal is with the title, but it’s not enough to grab me–I’m going to skip to #10.
10. Wild Card by Lora Leigh
I did end up reading the blurb before jumping in, and the premise of the book sounds unique.
And we’re starting with another male MC! The opening tone is very interesting–almost middle-grade, which does fit with the MC’s age. I assume we’re going to flash forward in time once we’re out of the prologue.
Oh my goodness, we have a second prologue. Bold move–I thought only Brandon Sanderson was allowed to do that. The tone of this book is really nice–that playful, semi-corny romance tone but nothing over-the-top. The combination of the premise and the voice might make me pick this one back up later.
And we’re done. Now comes the tough part. As promised above, I will read two books on this list: the one I least connected with and the one I most want to read. Hopefully, this will assuage the ire of anyone who assumes I wrote this post merely to shit on romance. I am really trying, people–I just honestly think I haven’t found my romance peeps yet.
My best pick: The Duchess by Jude Deveraux.
I loved the tone and pacing of the opening few pages. I’ve thought about this book off and on in the few days I’ve been writing this post. There was a tiny bit of head-hopping, but maybe that’s just a no-no specific to the genres I’m familiar with that doesn’t apply to romance. I’ll be anticipating reading this book.
My most unwilling pick: This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.
I mean, how bad can it possibly be? Look at that cover–it radiates romance, so maybe I just need to lose my Grinch-like attitude. I’ll make sure to give a final critique.
I’m glad that I conducted this experiment. Reading the opening couple paragraphs or pages of a book and writing up a blog post about my opinions might seem harsh, but aside from the cover, isn’t that how most of us judge books when we pick them up in the bookstore? Those opening pages are key–as an author, that’s your chance to woo your audience, so you’d better make ’em count.
Anyway, I’ll keep you guys updated on my romance genre forays. Stay tuned for some end-of-the-year lists, and have a very merry Christmas, everybody.
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