Last week, our TV Editor Phoebe Raven filled in for me and reviewed the Fifty Shades trilogy, the current erotic romance phenomenon. She noted that she liked the story well enough, but she criticized the amateurish writing and weak characterization, especially when it came to Anastasia, the trilogy’s female lead.
I haven’t read the books. After reading Phoebe’s review, I’m not anxious to do so. But the growing popularity—and the growing criticism—of the trilogy makes me kind of upset. It’s not that I don’t think the Fifty Shades trilogy likely deserves the criticism it’s getting. But sometimes I feel like romance is treated like the redheaded stepchild of the literary world. People often seem to think of it as inferior writing. But having read a lot of romance, I know better. Romance is like everything else: there’s a lot of crap out there, but there’s also a lot of really, really good stuff there. So I decided to write a list of my own, personal, highly subjective recommendations.
But first, let me define the parameters: a romance novel is a book in which a) the main plot focuses on the romantic relationship between the two lead characters, and b) the romance between the two main characters resolves happily.
So without further ado:
My guilty pleasure romance read: The Black Dagger Brotherhood series by J.R. Ward.
The pros: Phoebe mentioned in a conversation over on CC2K’s Facebook page that one of the things she liked about the Fifty Shades trilogy was that Christian played into the “damaged guy in need of saving” archetype. I hate to admit it, but that’s one I go for, too—and so do a lot of other women—and no one does it better than J.R. Ward. Ward writes sexy alpha heroes who each have their own psychological traumas to deal with. Usually their lives are in shambles until the heroines come into them. We all know it’s a fantasy, but it’s one that remains appealing to us at our basest level. Dark Lover is the first book, but my favorite is actually the second book, Lover Eternal, which features Rhage and Mary. Bonus: As I mentioned in an article a couple months back, Ward has announced that, for the next book in the series, the pairing will be Qhuinn and Blaylock, a male/male couple. Good for Ward for doing what very few other mainstream romance authors have been willing to do.
The cons: Ward has a very distinct style of writing, and it’s a love it/hate it proposition. She has a tendency to insert extra Hs into names (Zhadist, Vishous, Tohrment), as well as creating utterly unpronounceable ones (Xhex). The more old-school vampires talk like they’re Quakers, while the Brothers themselves talk like they’re pottier-mouthed versions of Eminem. Regardless, Ward has taken these ticks and made them into a very unique, self-assured style, haters be damned. None of this bothers me, but the one thing that has always gotten me about the Black Dagger Brotherhood books is that the female characters—with a few exceptions—are woefully underdeveloped when compared with the male characters.
The sexiness factor: On a scale of 1-10, with one being a G-rated movie, and 10 being a book that makes you feel like you’re actually in bed with the couple, Ward averages a solid 7.
Historical romance with a great story: Flowers in the Storm by Laura Kinsale
The pros: This is a really interesting story with some very insightful writing behind it. It focuses on a womanizing duke, Christian, whose ability to communicate is taken when he has a stroke, and the shy Quaker woman, Maddy, who nurses him and teaches him to speak again afterward. What’s interesting about this book is that it’s not only the duke’s disability that comes between them, but also the differences in their religions and social statuses. For Maddy, marrying a non-Quaker would mean excommunication. For Christian, his family is intent on him producing an heir with a noble-born woman—even after his stroke. They have trust issues and communication problems. (The scenes from Christian’s POV are gut-wrenching, as he struggles to understand and to communicate with the people around him.) You want this couple to get together, but they have so many problems that you wonder if they can. I believed in these characters, and I was really, really invested in this story.
The cons: This couple has so many problems, they really don’t get much time to be happy together and enjoy one another in the novel. I get that’s one of the reasons the tension is kept up throughout the story, but I have to admit: I do like my happy scenes sometimes. Plus, Maddy, as a character, sometimes came across as annoyingly self-righteous and lacking in self-insight.
The sexiness factor: The sex scenes themselves are probably about a 5-6, but this one is all about the anticipation and sexual tension—something Kinsale exploits well.
Contemporary romance with a great story: Broken by Megan Hart
The pros: This is one of my favorite books, ever. Sadie struggles with a crush on a man named Joe, who regales her with tales of his sexual exploits every month. Meanwhile, her marriage to Adam, who was paralyzed in a skiing accident five years earlier, is deteriorating. I love every Hart book I’ve read, but this is my favorite. Unlike many romances, which have well-defined heroes and heroines, you don’t really know who to root for in this book. Sadie and Adam’s marriage has been struggling since his accident, and he has a tendency to be abrasive and selfish toward her, yet it’s clear they really, deeply love one another. Joe seems to have feelings for Sadie, but he’s spent so much time being the rich playboy that it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to commit to a real relationship. Hart has a talent for creating realistic, complex, deeply flawed characters. They leap off the page because they seem like real people. Nowhere is this better showcased than in Broken.
The cons: This is an agonizing book to read, so much so that—based on the rules I gave above—it can barely be considered a romance. If I had known what was coming when I picked this book up, I would have bought stock in Kleenex first. If you’re looking for a happy, fluffy beach read, this is not it.
The sexiness factor: Probably about a 7 for the scenes themselves, and I’d be willing to bump it to an 8 just for the sheer number of them. However, some of the scenes are so emotionally devastating that some readers may find themselves turned off by them instead of the other way around.
Romance series that continues to follow the same characters: The Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost
The pros: Many of the fantasy series I read follow the same set of characters throughout, giving them a chance to grow and develop over the course of many books. Most romance series, however, change focal characters from book to book, even if they’re taking place within the same world. Frost’s Night Huntress series, however, follows Cat and Bones over the course of several books (seven and counting). Cat believes all vampires are evil; too bad she’s half-vampire herself. But when she meets a centuries-old vampire named Bones, her feelings, slowly but surely, start to change. Too bad things are never that simple. Frost manages to draw out sexual tension and believable relationship development over the course of many books. Not to mention that Bones and Cat are one of the sexiest couples I’ve ever read about in a book series. If you’re starting to feel vampire fatigue (and I know many of you are), but you’re a romance fan, this could be the series that convinces you there’s life in the undead yet.
The cons: Technically, as I defined it, these aren’t romance novels. Bones and Cat don’t get their happy ending in the first book, and their relationship is being continually challenged by both internal and external forces. If you want a romance in a neat little package, this one isn’t it. These books have heavy urban fantasy elements, which might aggravate some romance purists.
The sexiness factor: It’s difficult. On average, probably about a 6, but Frost really likes to kick it up sometimes to a full-on 9. (Don’t believe me? Chapter 32 in the second book, One Foot in the Grave, has its own fan following.