My Summer of Romance (Books)
Who doesn't love romance?
I got laid off from my long-time job at the beginning of summer, so, after 22 years of consistently working (save maternity leaves and vacations), I had tons of time to read! The even better news? Like I used to do when I was a shy, introverted high-school student; a bookish, overweight 20-something; and a not-yet-harried 30-something wife and mother, I turned to romance books to ease my sadness and buoy my spirit.
I've adored romance books since I was a teen and pride myself on saying I hold romance books and literary fiction in equal esteem (the value of both was the theme of my Master's degree thesis). I zoomed through Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series (soon to be a show on #Netflix, thank YOU Shonda Rhimes). Loved the snark and sexiness of contemporary faves, including everything by Jenny Crusie (Welcome to Temptation & Bet Me are tops), the early series by Victoria Dahl (Start Me Up is awesome), and Suzanne Brockmann's Troubleshooters series (I DID love Sam and Alyssa as much as everyone else, but I still contend Decker and Tracy's fun, banter-filled love story was underrated). I devoured historical romance after historical romance, favoring the ones where the heroine was a feisty, clever bluestocking who, virgin or no, made the hero work hard to gain her favor (e.g. anything by Tessa Dare, Mary Balogh, Sarah MacLean). I've read erotica, chick lit, women's fiction, steam punk, fantasy, vampire stories, and every other subgenre in romance. (Full disclosure: Remember when, due to a class-action lawsuit, Amazon had to give money back to readers who bought eBooks during a certain period? I got back $102!). So, yes, I've read it all.
Today, we are in a romance heyday. Not only do we have even more subgenres to choose from, more diverse heroines and heroes, LGBTQ romance books, and more, romance books are also seeing more exposure on TV and in the movies. And to that I have to say, "It's about time." And, best of all, the writing is at turns hilarious, romantic, sexy, profound, fun, and, most importantly, relatable. Literary critics like to give romance writers a hard time by saying it's not "real" writing, or it's not as challenging to write as literary fiction is (this has been happening since Nathaniel Hawthorne bemoaned the "damn mob of scribbling women" to his publisher in 1855). To them I say, "There's room for it all." And maybe they're a bit jealous that 65% of all books sold are romances? Just a thought! ;)
Right after my lay-off, I read a bunch of romances. Partly because, they've always been able to put a smile on my face and also because, as a writer, I love seeing how the "happy ever after" trope is done differently each time. It amazes me how romance writers can take the basic story and reinvent it over and over, continually enticing readers with different settings, storylines, characters, etc. Literary fiction is good, but the pathos and emotional subjects can definitely overwhelm (especially when your real life is itself in a challenging phase). So, if Nathanial Hawthorne was standing in front of me right now, I'd say, "These scribbling women are talented, smart, funny, and amazing writers. And there's room for them in any writing/literary conversation. Also, you were jealous they sold more books than you!"
Okay, I'll stop quoting my thesis now! :) Here's a mini or "baby book" review of each book. Rating is 1 to 5, with 5 being the best.
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Hoang burst onto the romance scene with The Kiss Quotient, reinventing the trope by having a heroine who is on the autism spectrum. This book flips that script by featuring a hero who is. While not only educating me about autism, Hoang also manages to breathe new life into the romance genre and the marriage (or in this case, pre-arranged marriage) of convenience trope.
Khai, a Vietnamese-American, has trouble showing his emotions, so much so that people have deemed him "unemotional," and he believes he is "unable to love." Enter his determined mother, who brings hotel-cleaner Eseme to America from Vietnam to be his wife. She gives the pair a few months to get to know each other before their wedding.
As with most marriage of convenience storylines, sweet moments, growing pains, and a whole lot of fun ensue. I'll be honest, I love the marriage of convenience trope and Hoang does a great job with it. For Eseme and Khai, the physical relationship comes easy, but the emotional connection takes a while to grow. But as it does, readers are treated to a sweet and sexy story that elevates the genre with two distinct characters and a reinvention of a common storyline.
Heat Index: Steamy with a healthy dose of sweetness
Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
Marriage of convenience stories are great, but I love retellings and reimaginings of my favorite book, Pride and Prejudice. This debut from Jalaluddin spins that hate-to-love storyline off in a new direction by featuring a Muslim couple living in Toronto. Khalid is devout in his faith and is more than willing to marry the woman his mother chooses for him. Ayesha, on the other hand, wants to be a poet and wants to marry for love regardless of what tradition and her elders say, thank you very much.
As they work together on a project for their local mosque, Khalid's attraction toward Ayesha deepens as he starts to reexamine his no-room-for-deviation devotion to his faith. At the same time, Ayesha still holds onto her personal dreams, but also loosens a bit when it comes to her willingness to judge the same faith and rules. As these two ping back and forth toward their ultimate HEA, they find common ground, while still respecting each other's feelings and lifestyles. And, honestly, isn't that what all love stories should be? Not only accepting a person for who they are, but also compromising a bit so you can love, live, and grow together?
I adored this book. It's a fresh take on my beloved classic that reflects our multicultural world. And even more refreshing: Like P&P's historical setting, the Muslim tradition and culture dictate a lack of physical interaction between the leads. So readers are treated to foreplay and courtship through words, actions, arguments and gestures, which can be even more titillating than kissing and hand-holding (Cue: "My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you"). Jalaluddin is definitely a fresh, new voice in the contemporary romance world.
Heat Index: Chaste, but the intellectual interaction is swoon-worthy
Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey
In this hot (with a capital "H") romance, Tessa Bailey takes the "dating your friend's little sister" trope and marries it with the "fake relationship" trope for a fun, sizzling read. Ex-baseball player Travis Ford just wants to wallow in the crash and burn of his professional career thanks to an injury, but his best friend's sister, spunky Georgie Charles, has other plans. She's always crushed on him, but as her older brother's BFF he was strictly off limits.
But now, behind Travis' gorgeous exterior, Georgie sees an opportunity. She's had it with her family thinking of her as a joke since she's the youngest of the bunch and owns a professional birthday-clown business. She wants to show them that she's all grown up and they should take her seriously. And doesn't a fake relationship with an older, handsome man sound like the perfect solution?
And, in Travis' case, he's looking to take an announcer job now that he can no longer play. But, having been quite the player both on and off the field (His nickname? Two Bats), he needs to project a more wholesome image. And doesn't a fake relationship with a sweet, cute girl sound like the perfect solution?
Travis and Georgie definitely have chemistry and literally scorch up the pages. My one quibble was him calling her "baby girl." I just kept thinking that if he's supposed to be the catalyst for getting others to take her more seriously, then maybe that particular nickname isn't the best choice. Aside from that, this book is both a super hot and funny, entertaining entry into a summer of great romance books.
Heat Index: Is it super-duper hot in here? Spoiler alert: It is!
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
In addition to making me yearn for some butter-drenched Maine lobster, this debut book by Linda Holmes, the host of NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, charms with an endearing heroine and a rough-and-tumble hero that you just can't but help to root for.
Eve's husband Tim, her town's high-school superstar and town doctor, is dead. The devastated town fully expects his adoring wife to be mourning him as well, even a year later. What they don't know is that he was emotionally abusive and the night he died, she had decided to leave him (and was actually in her car hightailing it out of town when she got the call).
Wracked with guilt for not being upset, as her friends and family expect her to be, Evvie's in a bad place. So is her best friend Andy's friend, Dean Tenney. Ridiculed out of New York City by Yankees fans who don't understand why Dean can no longer pitch (he's got a case of the yips...it's when athletes quickly and inexplicably lose their skills), he needs a quiet place to lick his wounds and determine his next move. He ends up renting the extra apartment in Evvie's big house, and the two form an unlikely friendship.
As these two help each other grow and heal, readers are also treated to an enchanting town and townsfolk who mean well, but hurt Evvie every time they expect her to be someone she's not. Both Dean and Evvie help the other overcome the challenges they face, while also slowly falling for each other. Add to that, the small-town Maine setting and you get an overall recipe for a very sweet, cozy, romantic, charming book. I loved it and can't wait to check out what this debut author writes next.
Heat Index: No explicit sex on the page, but Evvie and Dean's emotional and physical intimacy has a nice, old-fashioned, charming appeal.
Waiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winfrey - A solid 4. Charming, romantic, and an unabashed book-length love letter to Tom Hanks, Nora Ephron, and rom-com movies.
Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore - Another solid 4. A spicy historical that features a bluestocking suffragist and a British duke. Different political beliefs--and sparks--fly!
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