Recommended Read, Review, TBR Challenge

TBR Challenge: Tales of Old

May’s theme prompt for Super Wendy’s #TBRChallenge 2022 was “Tales of Old.” Here are the books we chose to tackle our TBRs this month.

Holly Read: The King’s Man by Elizabeth Kingston (2015)

Welsh Blades, Book #1

Why was this book on your TBR?

When Erin reviewed Desire Lines, which is the third book in this series, I thought, “That sounds like a Holly book.” I’m pretty sure this is the first ebook I ever purchased.

Why did you choose this book for this month’s challenge?

Gotta love a good medieval romance.

What are your thoughts on the book?

Holy Shamoly, Elizabeth Kingston can write. There are some standard Medieval romance scenes—for example, the our hero wakes up wounded, thinks he’s in Hell, and mistakes the heroine for an angel—but Kingston’s prose really elevate these moments so that though the beats feel familiar, they are not cliché. 

I loved the journey for both of the main characters. Rannulf is the king’s fixer (and given that the king in question is Edward I, known for his ruthlessness, well…) who needs to learn to forgive himself. Especially for killing his adoptive father, who was admittedly horrible, but who Rannulf also loved deeply. Rannulf’s psychology was absolutely fascinating, and I appreciated the new spin on the Bad Romance Dad. 

Gwenllian is a certified bad-ass and leader of men, who must give it all up when she marries Rannulf—and while she’s sad to leave that part of herself behind, she’s also relieved to no longer have to lead. So actually, her psychology is also fascinating. She is torn between her past and her future, between her love of her homeland and her duty to her king, between her mother and her husband. 

A note: there is a lot of gender essentialism in this book, but it absolutely works here, given the time period and the characterization. Just so you know not to expect any Woke Knights, because Rannulf is decidedly unwoke. And even though Gwenllian is a woman in pants, there are none of those scenes where “she must be a woman because of her pretty violet eyes.” Rather, her armor is a central part of her identity, which causes an existential crisis when she must set it aside for more womanly pursuits.

I loved this book. Highly recommended for the nerds out there. 

Buy Now: Amazon

Erin Read: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley (2009)

Mackenzies & McBrides, Book #1

Why was this book on your TBR?

It’s a pretty famous (and lauded) historical romance and, bonus, I found a used copy at the library book sale one year.

Why did you choose this book for this month’s challenge?

I wanted a historical romance that was also an older publication for this month. A double whammy, as it were.

What are your thoughts on the book?

It’s always a little nerve-wracking, wondering if a book that everyone seems to be excited about will live up to the hype. In this case, readers, it does. For me, anyway.

There is ton of period, er, relevant ableism and also a little bit of homophobia, but those terms are used to refract ideas for the reader, taking something we in a modern age see and (more or less, anyway) understand, and shifting it slightly so that we can see something about the period in question (1881 Edwardian London, Paris, and Scotland). Ian’s “madness” is not well understood even by his brothers, who love him dearly, but we recognize it as neurodiversity, more specifically as autism. Because of his ND, Ian’s father had him committed to an asylum, where he spent his youth and young-adulthood until his older brother inherited the dukedom and could get him out. In Paris, we meet one of the men who had been in the asylum with him—and who had been committed solely because he was gay. Ashley providing us with insight into the setting is also shedding some light on the historical treatment of individuals who do not fit the “normal” mold. I like it when authors poke at readers like that.

This book also features what feel like older protagonists—although apparently Ian is 27 and Beth is 29, so they’re not that old—but Beth is a widow who grew up in London’s East End, so she’s savvy and no-nonsense. This gives us a heroine who, when confronted with a murder connected to Ian’s past, trusts her gut and Ian and doesn’t engage in furtive questioning of the hero’s integrity or motives. She knows the limits and lengths of her power (she’s an heiress thanks to inheriting a fortune) and doesn’t let people cow her. I also like that. Very much. 

There’s a lot here about letting people be who they are, loving them as they are, and sharing vulnerabilities with the people one loves and is loved by. Also Beth and Ian are pretty horny and not shy about it, so that’s fun. 

Buy Now: Amazon | Bookshop

Want to join us in tackling your TBR? June’s theme is After the War.

Wrap Up

April 2022 Wrap Up

Here’s what we got up to this month.

Our Favorite Reads…

Holly’s Choice: Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

Look, Holly just likes them Old Skool, ok? And Bet Me is utterly delightful, with a bit of bonkers thrown in for good measure.

Ingrid’s Choice: All Rhodes Lead Here by Mariana Zapata

Ingrid really enjoyed the slightly more mature turn Zapata’s writing took in this book—while still maintaining her signature slow-burn swooniness.

Erin’s Choice: Honeytrap by Aster Glenn Gray

Biggest. Book. Hangover. EVER.

More from the Blog…

Notes from Romancelandia…

Not much to report this month, but if you want more romancelandia in your life, Holly put together not one, but two lists of romance blogs she reads: here and here.

Coming Soon…

Here’s a sneak peek at what we’ll be reading in May!

Our trope theme week will be accidental pregnancy, which we are all iffy about, so if you have a favorite, please let us know about it!

My First Smut

My First Smut: “Romance Novels Aren’t Just Stories, They’re Experiences”

My First Smut is a recurring feature where we talk about our formative smut experiences. These short confessionals may include such details as: What book did you read? How old were you? Were there other people involved? What made the experience special? What role does smut play in your life?

This week, author Skylar Shoar talks about catching the romance bug by reading The Notebook.

First romance novel you read:

The Notebook

How old were you?


How’d you get your hands on the book?

A colleague was reading it at work so I borrowed it after she’d finished.

What was the reading experience like?

FANTASTIC! It blew my mind wide open to the world of romance novels. I’ve always loved to read but romance just hits different and I craved more of the swoon factor. From there I read every romance book I could get my hands on, BUT you may be shocked to learn that they were clean romances and I didn’t discover smut until I started writing my debut novel. Becoming an author opened a whole new world to me and thanks to Bookstagram, I am now a proud member of the Romance Smut community!

What made the experience special?

As I’ve already mentioned, The Notebook was a rite of passage for me. It made me realise that romance novels aren’t just stories, they’re experiences that speak to the hopeless romantic inside me. It will forever be my favourite book.

What role does smut play in your life?

Smut is freedom and power. It allows readers to indulge in desires they may not feel comfortable sharing with people in real life.

Connect with Skylar:

Website | Instagram | Facebook

Thanks Skylar! We’re looking forward to reading her book, Dreams of Fate. Watch this space for a review coming soon!

Have an early smut experience you’d like to share with us? If you’d like to see your story featured, send us an email or fill out our questionnaire and we’ll post it in an upcoming week.

Review, TBR Challenge

TBR Challenge: Location, Location, Location

April’s theme prompt for Super Wendy’s #TBRChallenge 2022 was “Location, Location, Location.” Here are the books we chose to tackle our TBRs this month.

Erin Read: Star Dust by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner (2015)

Fly Me to the Moon, Book #1

Why was this book on your TBR?

After I attended an event on the National Mall commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, I started to wonder about romance set in that period, so when I found this series, I added the whole thing to my TBR.

Why did you choose this book for this month’s challenge?

Outer space is a pretty unique location, right?

What are your thoughts on the book?

This book was exactly what I expected and wanted it to be. Score! Anne-Marie is a divorcee whose parents buy her and her children a new house in the neighborhood where all the astronauts live. And wouldn’t you know it? There’s a very sexy astronaut living right next door. While they don’t get off to a great start, sparks are flying before you can say “ignition.”

This book played right into my mental imagery of the traditional American mid-century household, but that’s it’s strength; it’s working within that frame of reference to remind the reader that divorce was still extremely uncommon (fun fact, in the course of doing a school project in South Dakota, I learned that people moved there because it was easier to get a divorce than in other states), still scandalous, and women were scorned for it because they were expected to overlook a husband’s wandering…everything. The era feels more present than most histrom, so Anne-Marie’s attitudes toward being with a partner she truly desired felt both outrageous when viewed through a Regency histrom lens and also perfectly right when viewed through a contemporary lens (at least for the contemporaries I read). Then, too, my generation is so accustomed to astronauts that they’re not the celebrities they were during the space race, so it was interesting to have a unique celebrity hero.

Anne-Marie’s social position during this book might lick the flames of one’s “burn down the patriarchy” rage, but she’s also in an extremely privileged position because her parents’ wealth paid for her divorce and for her new house. Their connections got her a job. Her early interactions with Kit made the other astronauts’ wives sympathetic to her while the rest of her circle was gossiping and making judgments about her, so she didn’t have much social power of her own, but she was accepted into a group with a lot of clout. At the end of the day, she’s worked really hard to reboot her life…but then we don’t know what will happen to her with Kit – will she stop working outside the home again? As an astronaut’s SO, she’d be under a lot of media scrutiny, but we get no sense of how that pans out for her. It’s an interesting balancing act.

Once I finally started reading, I powered through this book. It was supremely interesting to me. But I can acknowledge that there were some curious choices on the part of the authors specifically to avoid tension in moments where the drama would have been quite natural – like when Kit’s in space, for example. Or, as I mentioned above, where the media was concerned. So while I was fully engaged, some readers might find it perhaps a bit too calm.

Buy Now: Amazon | Bookshop

Holly Read: Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin (2014)

Gunpowder Chronicles, Book #1

Why was this book on your TBR?

It’s a steampunk book set during the Opium Wars. Also, I’ve liked the other books I’ve read by Jeannie Lin.

Why did you choose this book for this month’s challenge?

Uh, it’s a steampunk book set during the Opium Wars.

What are your thoughts on the book?

This is one of those books where the plot is one damn thing after another. Poor Soling gets kidnapped no less than three times (by different people!). So the first thing to know is that you have to be prepared for a rollicking adventure story. And when the book ends, you know it’s going to be another damn thing after another, because the story is nowhere near done—this is not a standalone HEA, but rather just the beginning of Soling’s adventures.

There is a bit of bait and switch in the middle: for a while, it seems like Lin is setting up a love triangle, with Soing caught between two former young acolytes of her father’s who have taken opposing paths (obviously symbolic of the different paths Soling herself might take), but Yang Hanzhu quickly exits stage left, and then it’s nothing but Chen Chang-wei. This is unfortunate, because I found “Uncle Yang” (pirate, alchemist, outlaw) a much more appealing love interest than dutiful Chang-wei. I know that Lin can write great pining, but in this case, the very slow burn was overshadowed by all the adventures Soling was having.

The best part of the book is Lin’s imagining of what Chinese steampunk would look like—without a steam engine. For example, several characters have mechanical prosthetics that integrate with their bodies using wires attached to acupuncture needles. 

Overall, this was a fun read, if not a great romance. Recommended for those who love steampunk and want to read about something besides dirigibles in London.

Buy Now: Amazon | Bookshop

Ingrid Read: All Rhodes Lead Here by Mariana Zapata

Why was this book on your TBR? 

Well, I’ve read everything else by Mariana Zapata so I figured I had to!

Why did you choose this book for this month’s challenge?

I pored over my options and initially figured I’d do something in a fresher, lesser done locale, but I chose this one because so much of the plot revolved around place. The heroine went back to her roots to be where her mother loved to be and ultimately went missing. And so it seemed like an interesting twist on “location”.

What are your thoughts on the book?

I honestly thought Mariana Zapata had a ghostwriter for the first chunk of this book. Traditionally, MZ heroines are pretty cookie cutter—tough as nails but ultimately very naive and innocent. They usually need a rescue, and the hero tends to be someone who can’t seem to stop saving the day…because he’s secretly gripped by deep feelings he can’t resist.

In this one, I clocked Aurora as being a full-grown woman who is making independent decisions for herself and doesn’t really need rescuing. (Except for when she hikes and makes errors in judgment, but lots of inexperienced hikers do this, so.) After a post divorce road trip, she ends up renting a room online from who she THINKS is an adult but is actually Rhodes’ son in the town she grew up in. After begging, she’s allowed to stay temporarily and she gets a job at the local outdoors store working for a childhood friend. 

The basic plot revolves around Aurora working through the loss of her marriage, her mother’s disappearance, and the loss of her work as a songwriter. Rhodes is learning how to be a hands-on parent after being away in the Navy for most of his son’s life, and works as a forest ranger. Essentially, what we’re looking at here is extreme capability porn mixed with grumpy/sunshine. My kryptonite. 

A lot of people dislike MZ’s slow burn, and if that’s a hold up for some readers I highly recommend they give this one a go simply because it makes sense. There’s a kid involved and living on the premises…and there’s a lot of other things going on. It’s not just nonstop smut dangling and then a bait and switch. 

I have no idea if MZ used a ghostwriter (not my business, really) but after finishing, I felt like it was just a more mature storyline written by perhaps a more mature author. And the threads of “where” are threaded throughout the plot beautifully–where is her mother? Where will Aurora settle down? Where did her prior relationship go wrong? And where did her songwriting ability go?

It’s a great (if not flexible) example of location, location, location and I highly recommend it.

Buy Now: Amazon | Bookshop

Want to join us in tackling your TBR? May’s prompt is Tales of Old.

The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

What Makes a Romance? Gray Area Books

Last month, as part of our “What Makes a Romance” series, we talked about three books that were indisputably romances and what made them work so well, despite using a range of narrative techniques to tell the stories.

This month, we want to dig in to a few “gray area” romances. In other words, these books are ones that some readers say, “oh yes, definitely a romance” and others say, “nah, that was not really a romance.” These books may more accurately be termed “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” or…some other genre. As with the books we discussed last month, we narrowed down the selection for this month’s discussion by including books that at least two of us have read. (And remembered enough to discuss.)

Before we dive in, a reminder. Our goal in this series is not to police the boundaries of the genre, but rather to explore those boundaries.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)

The Details:

Outlander is perhaps the most famous of all time travel romances. Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, our plucky, eternally competent narrator, is a nurse who, after World War II, goes on a belated honeymoon with her husband…only to mysteriously end up in 18th century Scotland. She ends up married to Jamie for reasons that are not really important right now, and the two have many adventures together. After spending approximately 800 pages trying to figure out how to get the standing stones to send her back to the 20th century, Claire decides that her love for Jamie actually transcends time and modern medicine, and decides to remain in the 18th century with him. 

Why is this book a gray area romance? 

From the description, this seems like a pretty straightforward romance, does it not? It even won a RITA for Best Romance in 1992. And to go back to Ingrid’s definition of what makes a good romance, yes, Claire and Jamie do struggle separately and together to reach their moment of happiness.

Well, the first thing to know is that Outlander is the first book in a 9 book (SO FAR) series, and, as a corollary, that Gabaldon loves to torture poor Claire and Jamie. While they might have true love together, the larger story is not very interested in the couple’s HEA, but rather in all the things that happen as their lives continue. The love might be real, but the moments of happiness are fleeting. This means that, on a structural level, the book (and especially its sequels) is constructed differently than you generally see in a genre romance. If the first book stood alone as its own book, it could be considered a romance (because the plot revolves around Claire and Jamie’s struggles as they fall in love with each other) but the subsequent books evolve into all kinds of struggles and conflicts that are only tangentially related to Claire and Jamie’s inner relationship. And those books can’t really be considered “romance novels”.

Another key piece of this is marketing: Diana Gabaldon herself does not describe her books as romances. 

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall (2021)

The Details:

Rosaline Palmer enters a televised baking contest that is definitely not The Great British Bake Off. And starts shagging one of her competitors. Except then it turns out he’s kind of a jerk? And that other competitor, who she thought was a dumb meathead, is actually pretty awesome. 

Why is this book a gray area romance?

Since we discussed a different book by Alexis Hall last month, we know that he can write a killer romance—but this one got some pushback from romance readers, who declared that it wasn’t “really” a romance. (Holly raged about that a bit in her review.) So what made this one hit differently?

Perhaps it’s the bait-and-switch love triangle. Rosaline and Alain have a total meet-cute, such that a reader might be legitimately worried that Rosaline might end up with him. Perhaps it’s the fact that Rosaline and Harry spend most of the book slowly becoming friends, but there’s not actually a lot of relationship between them. If we go back to Ingrid’s rubric, there’s not a lot of struggling together, or even a common obstacle that they are facing. Which brings us to the final perhaps: perhaps it’s the fact that this story is really about Rosaline Palmer’s journey as she deals with a lot of internalized baggage about the worth of people (including herself).

Kulti by Mariana Zapata (2015)

The Details: Sal Casillas is a professional soccer player who comes into a new season with her former childhood crush, retired soccer superstar Reiner Kulti, signed on as her new assistant coach. Kulti starts out as a pretty self-absorbed a-hole, eventually leading the usually glass-half-full Sal to all but cuss him out on the field, but after they get things sorted out, they become extremely close (if complicated) friends. 

Why is this book a gray area romance?

Look, Ingrid and Erin both consider this to be a romance, and they agree gray areas can see themselves out. But there are a few things going on here that might lead readers to consider this women’s fiction rather than a genre romance. First, it’s a single 1st POV told entirely from Sal’s viewpoint, and the limitations of the single first narration apply. Plus, Sal is heavily focused on her career, not just on her burgeoning friendship with her coach. In fact, it takes a very long time for any substantive interaction between them to even occur. Second, Kulti is slowly revealed, so he is a round and dynamic character, but not in a significant way—we don’t get much in the way of Kulti’s feelings about Sal or their relationship. And third, the book is approaching 600 pages long, and the burn is extremely slow with only the barest of hints ratcheting up the simmer until it suddenly boils over after the 85% mark. 

Taken on its own, it would be easy to look at Sal’s struggle to value herself enough to pursue the career she deserves as the overarching narrative of this story, with the romantic subplot being the impetus for her to evaluate her situation more closely. If we consider this with Ingrid’s metric in mind, however, both Sal and Kulti undergo significant change and growth both separately and together as they slowly develop into grudging colleagues, then friends, then best friends, then…a panty melting power couple. 

Girls Weekend by C.M. Nascosta (2021)

The Details:

Three women with varying degrees of friendship ties go on a weekend getaway to an Orc nudist resort, and two of them manage to find romance along the way. It’s important to note in this case that all three women are granted relatively similar page-space, so there’s not one overarching romance with additional romantic narrative threads. And for the most part, even though the book is titled Girls Weekend, the story doesn’t focus on the women’s friendships as we are often likely to find in women’s fiction.

Why is this book a gray area romance?

In the first place, it’s not aggressively marketed as romance. The blurb definitely includes romance lingo, and an added note on the blurb in the Amazon ebook page states that the book is monster romance that will end with HEAs all around by the end of the series, but the blurb also clearly states that the story is about three friends heading out for a weekend of hedonism, with no mention of romantic partners other than a brief quip about no-strings sex ending in love. 

Secondly, there are three separate storylines that run almost entirely parallel, and in a 200 page book that doesn’t provide a lot of time for three sets of MCs to have three complete narrative arcs. In a romance duology or trilogy, there’s often a cliffhanger that leaves the relationship unresolved, and that’s not exactly what we get here. In the one case, the relationship definitely ends with a solid HFN. In another, there’s no relationship at all. And in the third, the relationship does end without much resolution one way or the other. Ambiguous (maybe happy?) endings aren’t really something commonly done in romance novels.

The common theme in books that fall into a gray area is that it’s not always readily apparent that all of the protagonists are struggling to overcome obstacles separately and together. Many of the books that occupy this gray area space are single POV, and that’s likely because the quibble over the designation of the romantic thread being a central element of the story can occur more easily when the non-POV protagonist(s) don’t have an opportunity to share their own fears and motivations as the story progresses; however, that’s not the only reason that we tend to shunt books into a “romance adjacent” category. 

As we move into the next few months of this series, we’ll delve deeper into the ways that the structure and components of a narrative or relationship impact a reader’s perception of whether or not it is considered a genre romance.