Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight: Jackie Lau

Looking for a new author? Here’s everything you need to know about Jackie Lau, whose books include The Ultimate Pi Day Party, Her Big City Neighbor, and A Match Made for Thanksgiving.

What She Writes: 

Contemporary romances featuring Chinese-Canadian characters in Toronto. Expect frequent mentions of restaurants and the amazing food served there. 

What Makes Her Unique: 

Lau’s books generally start with a tropey premise (“I need a fake date!” “Please give me relationship lessons!” “I will befriend a grumpy person with the power of rainbow sprinkles!”), but then at the midpoint, the characters lay their cards on the table and the focus shifts to the characters and their relationship, without the trope. The relationship-building tends to be low on drama, and high on emotional vulnerability, honest conversations, meddling relatives (of all ages), and food. 

Writing Style: 

Lau uses alternating POV, so the reader gets the perspective of both the hero and the heroine. Her writing leans more expository – there’s not a ton of deep description, but there is a lot of detail about what specific streets and restaurants and shops in Toronto her characters are frequenting. The books tend to be on the shorter side, with the full-length novels clocking in at around 200 pages. Her different series are loosely interconnected, mainly because the characters go to the same places. 

Why We Love Her: 

Her books are fun. And make us hungry. 

Her Books in gif form:

She Might Not Be For You If: 

You (not so secretly) love purple prose and expect lush descriptions in your romances. Or if you thrive on drama and all the angst. 

Notable Quotation:

“Because even though I’m a grumpy bastard who stomps all over people’s dreams, sometimes I just want a cuddle, you know? Cuddling is pretty awesome, not that I would ever admit that to anyone.”

– Ice Cream Lover

Content Warnings: 

While her books are generally light-hearted, some characters are dealing with overcoming past trauma, usually surrounding family members (such as a death in the family or abusive or emotionally distant parents). 

The Bottom Line: 

Lau is great if you’re looking for low-key romance that’s not super long. She is an indie author who doesn’t use Kindle Unlimited and is probably not available at your library, but she does often promote books as freebies, so you can probably see if she’s a fit for you during one of her promos. (Or recommend her to your library!)

Start With: 

Holidays with the Wongs. Four novellas in one collection!

Smut Reporting

Bridgerton Discussion: It’s Not Fluff

In light of it being February, which means a bunch of articles about romance novels – and how they’re nothing but fluff – we decided to hash out our feelings about Bridgerton. We had a lot of them: excitement about watching a romance adaptation (especially with our spouses, none of whom read romance but all of whom were good sports and then got totally hooked), disappointment about some of the decisions the showrunners made, discomfort about the trajectory for Marina Thompson’s character…but most of all, a sense of grumpiness in the way people have been talking about the show. Not the thoughtful critiques of the show, because there are nuanced and necessary conversations to be had about race and gender and consent and class, but the ubiquitous takes that were like, “Wow, this show is fluffy, but it’s shockingly fun!”

Continue reading “Bridgerton Discussion: It’s Not Fluff”
Smut Reporting

Let’s get something clear: erotic romance edition

Recently I found myself in a conversation in which we had been asked to rec an extremely high heat book, and Holly and I went straight to thinking about erotic romance we knew, but when polled, others came back with responses that surprised us because…we don’t think of them as particularly high heat at all (Please see: Lisa Kleypas). During the course of this conversation, someone asked what was the threshold between Romance and Erotica. And…while heat level might be somewhat subjective, Romance and Erotica do have pretty clear definitions. They are:

Romance: 

  1. Love story central to narrative
  2. Emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending (HEA or HFN required)

Erotica: 

  1. Story is substantively sexual with arousing or erotic content
  2. Love story not required
  3. HEA or HFN not required

And where these two meet is at…

Erotic Romance (sometimes called Romantica):

  1. Love story central to narrative
  2. Love story is substantively sexual and includes arousing or erotic content
  3. Emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending (HEA or HFN required)

By definition, a story does not require sex at all, not to mention on-page sex, in order to qualify as romance. (I’ll probably rant about this another day.)

In a similar vein, a romantic narrative is in no way required for a story to qualify as erotica. 
But there are some stories in which the romantic journey is broadly aligned with the sexual journey of the protagonists, resulting in a HEA or HFN, and those stories inhabit the space that is erotic romance.

OH AND ALSO, while a lot of erotic romance also explores various kink, it is not required

To summarize: 

Erotic romance ≠ kink

Erotic romance ≠ BDSM

Erotic romance ≠ high heat or explicit descriptions

Erotic romance ≠ numerous sexytimes

Erotic romance = sex doing a lot of work to advance the romantic narrative or to reveal the emotions or emotional journey of the protagonists. The fact that it’s also usually marvelously explicit and extremely high heat is a feature, not the defining characteristic. 

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Smut Reporting

Musings on Monogamy

While reading Three-Way Split, by Elia Winters, I was struck (not for the first time) by the way characters have a prior relationship experience that was unsatisfying or traumatic and swear off love forever because relationships are too much…something. Emotional entanglement usually. This is an extremely common reason for characters not to want to be in a relationship in romance (like, so common I sarcastically ranted about it last year), and especially in contemporary romance where societal expectations are less likely to be a source of conflict. 

I often find this conflict for “why can’t they be together right now” annoying. But, to be fair, I have been in a monogamous relationship since I was seventeen, so I’ve never really experienced any meaningful, hurtful kind of rejection in a relationship. With Three-Way Split I was rolling with it, however, because the characters have to get over something in order to grow and ultimately be together, right? 

Then, while the protagonists are in a polyamory workshop, one of the speakers says:

“If you are okay to let go of some of the expectations of monogamy, you can be free to feel emotions, or not, and accept whatever develops.”

And I was like:

This is the problem that ALL the characters have. Not just in this book. All the characters who have sworn off romance. They expect SO MUCH of a romantic monogamous relationship that they’re unable to function emotionally in that space. So they shut it down. 

But also, this is a problem that readers have, because the reason that this emotional romantic tension exists and is so prevalent in romance is because readers want the characters to have the happily ever after (HEA), find the one, and ride off into the sunset with every expectation that the romance will last forever. Readers are angry or disappointed when stories end in a happily for now (HFN), and it’s not very easy to find romance that has a HEA with a non-monogamous relationship agreement. Because that kind of agreement would imply that the protagonists might not actually be the one for each other. 

I referred to this TED talk by relationship therapist Esther Perel in my review of Resisting the Billionaire by Allie Winters, and while the topic of her talk is infidelity, this point that she makes speaks to me every time I listen to it because it’s more about how our expectations of romantic love are enormous than about infidelity per se: 

“We have a romantic ideal in which we turn to one person to fulfill an endless list of needs: to be my greatest lover, my best friend, the best parent, my trusted confidant, my emotional companion, my intellectual equal. And I am it: I’m chosen, I’m unique, I’m indispensable, I’m irreplaceable, I’m the one. And infidelity tells me I’m not. It is the ultimate betrayal. Infidelity shatters the grand ambition of love.” 

So no wonder, when expectations for personal value so directly tied to expectations of romance, these characters who have had bad romantic experiences in the past shy away from love. They’ve been betrayed by the grand expectation. And no wonder readers give fewers stars to perfectly fine romance books with perfectly optimistic romantic endings when they don’t meet our expectations for grand romance and “true love” and a HEA. Which is to say: monogamous romance in which both partners’ emotional, intellectual, and sexual needs are all met by one perfect partner forever. Even menage romance typically ties up a HEA with a closed triad, so the throuple is faithful within the threesome, though it’s not by definition monogamous. 

I admit that I like certain things in my smut. I like a HEA more than a HFN, and I like an epilogue with marriage and kids at the end more than an epilogue that takes place six weeks later. (Because why? I don’t get those epilogues at all.) Et cetera. That reflects my own life more than, say, a non-monogamous relationship between people who are not married and never want to have kids. But I also really, really, really want to see characters (people) being allowed to be who they are and to find happiness in ways that work for them. And if that means letting go of this intense expectation of how monogamy is so important and how love is supposed to work, I am totally here for that. 

To do otherwise and declare that romance books that explore non-monogamous or otherwise non-traditional relationships are somehow sub-par romance is incredibly exclusive. Romancelandia deserves better. 

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Ménage Romances

This week at TSR, we’re focusing on ménage romances, mainly because Holly and Erin both read a bunch back to back sort of by accident. What can we say? We’re having a Very Sexy January! To kick things off, we had a discussion about ménage romances – the good, the bad, and the sexy.

Books we’ll be reviewing this week

Bottom line: Do you like the ménage à trois trope?

Holly: I do. I mean, it’s not my #1 go-to, but I think that ménage romances open up all kinds of possibilities – and not just for different bedroom configurations. There is double the possibility for misunderstanding and drama and angst, but also double the possibility for showing what different kinds of love and joy and compatibility can look like. 

Erin: Yep! I started reading them periodically because they’re hot, but as I’ve read more I really appreciate when I find the nuanced approach of three protagonists figuring out their feelings as they figure out the relationship dynamic. These stories really demonstrate trust in a partner, which is beautiful.

Ingrid: It’s definitely not my first choice. I love a good dose of messy in my characters, and I have no logical explanation for why this trope stresses me out, but it really does! Maybe because it feels like the potential for complications and heartbreak increases exponentially? Obviously, it’s romance, so I’m proven wrong every time…but the journey from start to HEA is still a nail-biter for me every time.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: I think it’s hot. Like, “Ooo, think about what two mouths and four hands could do!” So it safely taps into that fantasy for readers who probably are not going to engage in their own ménage. (Though that makes me wonder… Statistically how many people DO have threesomes?) But I also really love to read poly throuples finding a HEA – they have to deal with a lot more than an average couple – when monogamy still is widely considered the ultimate relationship goal. I think reading the trope in that context opens doors outside one’s own experience. Or, maybe more importantly, provides representation to people who don’t always see themselves represented on page.

Ingrid: I love that it’s yet another example of how humans just seem to have an endless capacity to create their own way of love and happiness–and of course, the erotic component can be very fun. I have been seeing more and more examples that really unpack what it means to fairly negotiate a relationship between three people and although I find that it’s not for me generally-speaking, it brings up a lot of interesting clarity about romantic relationships, period. How much happier would some monogamous people be if they were forced to negotiate and discuss the terms of their arrangement the way a ménage does? Because for a true HEA, that’s what’s required in these cases. And I find that incredibly refreshing.

Holly: I 100% agree with Ingrid here (except for the bit about it not being for me, because, as we’ve established, I really enjoy reading ménage romances). 

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: It’s a super sexy fantasy, so it’s fun to read the sexy rumpus versions of ménage, but at the same time, if that’s a person’s only expectation of how a ménage works, it ends up sort of perpetuating ideas that polyamory isn’t…I don’t know. Isn’t a real, meaningful, emotionally engaged relationship that the characters really choose to work at. 

I also don’t love it when one of the closed triad is reduced to a secondary status in the relationship. Like, if there’s an ending with marriage and everyone agrees that the legal marriage will be one way but there’s clearly an agreement among everyone that they’re all equally married, that’s fine, but a couple having a permanent plaything is…not my jam.

Ingrid: The early examples I read definitely seemed more stereotyped. Somewhat shallow, almost exclusively sexually-based encounters. It seems like this is one trope that has historically tended to either represent the relationship in either its dysfunction or its ideal–but as I said before, I would anticipate more thoughtful and romantic examples of this trope emerging in the future.

Holly: I think this is really about expectations. If you’re reading ménages because you want to see thoughtful portrayals of poly relationships, well, you need to choose wisely. But is the idea of two best friends deciding they want to share a woman inherently problematic? No.

What does the story need to accomplish in order for you to believe in the HEA/HFN?

Holly: Here’s the thing. I would categorize ménage romances into two broad categories: “let’s work out how our polyamorous relationship is going to work” and “sexy rumpus, double the fun”. If I’m reading a sexy rumpus book, then I just need to buy that these guys are compatible in the sack. 

But if I’m reading a ménage book that takes poly seriously then I want to see the characters actually talk about the logistics of how their relationship will work. Some of the questions I might want them to talk about include: Who, if anyone, will be legally married? Where will they live? Are all three on the same footing, or is one couple dominant and the third person is secondary to the relationship? 

Note: this is not to say that some sexy rumpus books don’t also address questions like this – just that I don’t necessarily need them to to be satisfied with the ending. 

Erin: So, I don’t need all of what Holly is expecting from a poly romance, because I feel like all of the ones I read involve a throuple exploring poly for the first time, and it’s not like this book takes place over the course of a year or multiple years. So what I expect is that the characters are roughly equally represented and equally well-rounded so that I can believe that they love each other in some equivalency that makes it reasonable that trust and respect and love is all present and accounted for. And then for their HEA what I’d be looking for is honestly what I’m looking for in a lot of contemporary romance, because most of the ones I read end not with an epilogue with marriage and kids but with the protagonists overcoming whatever the problem was and agreeing that they want to work on being together because that’s what’s important to them now.

Ingrid: I actually agree with Holly here–I need to understand what the desired outcome is for all parties involved or it’s very difficult for me to buy in and relax enough to enjoy the story.

Erin and Holly looked at their ménage romance reading and Erin whipped out the handy-chart-o-matic! Also known as Excel. So let’s look at some trends we’ve noticed. 

Here’s the distribution of the 15 books we included from our tracked reading:

And from these, we found the following breakdown of things that felt like trends while we were reading:

Holly: First, some points of clarification. The question, “is it polyamory?” refers to the dichotomy I mentioned earlier, about whether a book grapples with polyamory or is just about having a sexy rumpus. Also, the N/A in that category is a book where the protagonists are grappling with what polyamory might mean, but the book ends with a monogamous dyad because one of the triad suuuuuuucks and gets dumped. (My full review is here. I talk about penises a lot. Sorry for the spoiler.) 

Now, obviously 15 books is not a huge sample, but a couple of things strike me. The biggest is that there seems to be a dearth of FFM menage (at least in our reading lists), so I would appreciate some recommendations of good ones, please and thank you. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though, given how much more popular M/M romance than F/F romance seems to be. The other thing that is striking to me is how many books we’ve actually read where the protagonists actually do grapple with what polyamory would mean for them as a throuple – and I am all about this trend. 

Erin: So, I could have sworn that in the vast majority of the throuple books I’ve read, one of the three is dominant, at least in bed and possibly also in the throuple. Like the other two maybe just kind of needed a leader? Some glue? But actually the data doesn’t describe that at all, so those books must simply have been memorable. 

Holly: Just to butt in, Erin asked me about whether the ménages I’d read featured this dynamic and I was like…no. Never. So it is entirely possible that this IS the dynamic in all the throuple books that Erin’s reading. 

Erin: All the books that don’t have sword crossing are, as expected, sexy sex rather than polyamorous. And, for the record, that is significantly less fun to read than the sword-crossing variety of throuple.

Ingrid: Not to push Erin down the data rabbit hole, but I would be SO CURIOUS to take this information and track trends by pub date…I want to see how things have shifted and trended over time. 

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Holly: I will take every opportunity to recommend She Whom I Love by Tess Bowery, partially because I never see anyone else talking about it. It’s a FFM regency romance featuring a tradesman, a maid, and an actress, and Bowery is able to explore all kinds of stuff about gender and class and power because of her choice of protagonists. Plus it’s sexy as hell. 

Erin: Three-Way Split by Elia Winters is AH-MAZE-ING. I was seriously (figuratively) concerned  that I was going to combust while I was reading the sex scenes, because HOLY WOW. But while Winters can write some sexy sex, she also does a totally exceptional job of treating polyamory with sensitivity and positivity. So if you’re looking for sex-positive poly erotic romance with a satisfying ending, just start here. 

Ingrid: I have to be honest, I can’t say that I’ve read one yet that I’d gush over–but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep looking!!