Hockey, House Parties, and Taxidermy: A Romance Novels Round-Up

The time has come, the walrus said, for another romance novels round-up! I know you’ve been yearning for it. This election season was difficult, the results were worse, and these last few months more than ever I’ve needed cuddly tropey fluff to get me through.

Hard Knocks

Ruby Lang is a new-to-me author I discovered through the wonderful Romance Novels for Feminists (which has never yet steered me wrong), and I received Hard Knocks for review consideration from the publisher. Hard Knocks is about a hockey player nearing the end of his career (Adam) and a neurologist (Helen) who thinks he’s cute when he brings his friend in for a concussion check-up but does not think much of all the brain damage sports can wreak upon their players.

Oh how I love discovering a new romance author whose books are just right for me. Hard Knocks is witty and charming, with banter between the leads that is also witty and charming (in the way that so many romance novels try and fail to have their banter be, i.e., effortlessly), and I’m delighted that there’s another book in the series for me to read.1 Things I particularly loved include how angry Helen is (I love angry heroines); the fact that nobody gives a crap that she sleeps with Adam casually; frank discussion of finances (so rare); and how angry Helen is.

Did I say one of those twice? I really love angry heroines. I can already tell that Ruby Lang’s going to be one of my go-to romance authors–very much recommended!

Do You Want to Start a Scandal, Tessa Dare
Do You Want to Start a Scandal, Tessa Dare

Charlotte Highwood creeps into the library to let Lord Granville know that she absolutely does not intend to let her mother entrap them into marrying — and kind of gets entrapped into marrying him. She’s determined to find them both a way out of it. He’s a spy. Everyone’s stuck at this manor house for one of those house parties where people are so nosy and everyone is maybe creeping away to do assignations.

Frankly, this is a delight from cover to cover. I love and revel in angsty romances (cf. my longtime love for Meredith Duran), but it was a refreshing treat to encounter a heroine as cheerful and indomitable as Charlotte. She refuses to allow herself to be caught up in anything like a Big Misunderstanding and perpetually cuts through the romance novel trope bullshit to say and do exactly what she means.

Hold Me

Courtney Milan was one of the first — maybe the first? — romance authors I tried when I decided to give romance novels another chance; and I’ve been a fan ever since. Her latest historicals have felt a trifle pat, so I’ve been on a break from them, but her new contemporary series — of which Hold Me is the second — has been excellent so far. In addition to thoughtfully exploring issues I care about (poverty, work-life balance, complicated parental relationships, independence v. intimacy), they lay out sincere emotional problems and show us how the characters navigate those issues.

Maria Lopez runs a popular blog where she imagines end-of-the-world scenarios in great detail. She has an ongoing semi-flirtation with one of her regular commenters, whom she called Actual Physicist and who calls her Em. When she goes to deliver a message to one of her brother’s friends (a scientist), the friend, Jay, is horribly rude to her, making immediate assumptions about her intelligence based on her appearance (girly! heels!), and she takes an immediate dislike to him. Well guess what y’all. Guess what turns out to be the case.

I liked this book a hell of a lot. Maria’s trans, and I love that it isn’t an issue in her relationship to Jay. I love that we see her as part of a group of queer friends, and that part of her emotional arc involves speaking honestly with her friend and former roommate Angela (who’s getting her own book, yay!) — in other words, that overcoming her feelings problems doesn’t revolve solely around Jay. I love You’ve Got Mail-y premises like this one, and Hold Me is a hugely satisfying book along those lines.

KJ Charles has a new series called Sins of the City that’s inspired by Wilkie Collins’s fiction, and frankly that’s all the information I needed to get excited about An Unseen Attraction. (Actually all I needed was KJ Charles’s name, but this Wilkie Collins thing didn’t hurt.) I received An Unseen Attraction from the publisher for review consideration, via NetGalley.

Clem manages a lodging house where everything is in perfect order, apart from the one tenant Clem’s noble half-brother won’t ever let him evict. When that tenant turns up brutally murdered, Clem’s tidy world is turned upside down — and so is the life of another of his tenants, the sexy taxidermist Rowley Green.

So much Wilkie Collins in this book, y’all. I loved it. Dark secrets to be uncovered, the promise of more scandal to come in subsequent books, it’s all completely up my alley. Better yet, Charles does a wonderful job of showing how Clem and Rowley learn to be ever-better friends and lovers to each other, treading gently around insecurities but setting boundaries where necessary. Clem is on the spectrum and Rowley comes from an abusive home, and they make mistakes with each other. The tension doesn’t arise so much from a Big Misunderstanding as from the clashes that happen around conflicting motives, loyalties, and ways of being a person. Charles is terrific at depicting Clem and Rowley’s attempts to navigate all of this, and it makes their happy ending all the more satisfying.

Basically, if the idea of a story about love, taxidermy, and murder most foul appeals to you, I’d recommend you run straight out and preorder An Unseen Attraction. It comes out on 21 February and is well worth your time.

What romance novels have you been enjoying lately, friends? I always need more recs!

  1. It’s about a guy with allergies who falls in love with his allergist. I mean, come on. That could not be more charming.
  • But what about the thing by which (in which?) so many romance novels have men with their shirts off, or in the act of ripping off their shirts. And how do these men have any time for romance since clearly they have to spend every waking hour at the gym?

    • Hahahaha, these are great questions, Jill, and I do not have any answers. Among the many mysteries with romance novels, along with why does nobody in a romance novel ever mind kissing their beloved first thing in the morning. :p

  • Jeanne

    My friend who supplied me with romance novels when our kids were little brought over a bag of Julie Garwood novels a few weeks ago, and so I took a couple of the paperbacks with me to Hawaii. One was set in Regency England and featured a woman raised by Dakotas, and the other was set in the wild west and featured three women who supported each other until they found out one of them was involved with the bad guy that another of them had witnessed robbing a bank. They were fun, and I left one at an airport and another in the hotel room. That way I had room to bring home more macadamia nuts.

    • I think I’ve told you my baleful Julie Garwood story? If not remind me to tell you about it the next time we’re in the same place, because if you don’t already know about it, I need to see your reaction live. 😛

  • Christy

    Thanks for the link to Romance Novels by Feminists. You’ve been a great source of romance recommendations, so it’s nice to get connected to one of your own sources. I enjoyed Hold Me as well. The last romance I read was Lucy Parker’s witty Act Like It, though a recent sci-fi read, The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord (who hails from Barbados), also had an excellent slow-burn romance.

    • Ahhhhhh yes, Act Like It, I have to read that one! My library keeps not having it available, but I hear wonderful things and am waiting on tenterhooks for my hold to come in.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    I don;t read romance novels but I like looking at the covers and I must say the Mr. on the cover of An Unseen Attraction has the smoldering look down! Gives me happy shivers 🙂

    • Now she’s got these sort of stylized playing card images for each of the characters in that series, which I love. Authors do such fun, cool things.

  • Whaaaaaaaat, KJ Charles meets Wilkie Collins? *buying immediately*

  • I’ll be checking out the Romance Novels for Feminists link. Courtney Milan’s historicals were some of the first I read recently. I have a soft spot for regencies because of my grandmother’s reading habits.

    • Ooh, if you like regencies, Rose Lerner and Cecilia Grant have both written books set in that era, and they’re among my very most favorite romance authors of all time.

  • Laila@BigReadingLife

    Romance Novels for Feminists – awesome, gonna check that out! Thanks for this roundup!

  • *Wanders off to follow Romance Novels for Feminists, then wanders back*

    Okay, so I’ve read one of these, know about another one, and am now going to add the other two to my wish list.

    …knowing you is terrible for my Mt TBR. <3

    • YOU’RE WELCOME. 😀 Both for these recs and for the many excellent recs you will no doubt get from the wonderful Romance Novels for Feminists.

  • Romance Novels for Feminists?! Sounds perfect for me. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome! I love that site, and she finds tons of romance novels that I wouldn’t have heard about elsewhere.

  • Read Diverse Books

    I still don’t read many traditional “Romance” novels, but reads lots of novels with heavy romance elements!
    Personally, #ownvoices m/m romance is what appeals to me most for traditional Romance books. I’ve read a few, but not enough. I read so many books with heterosexual relationships that Romance with cishet f/m pairings don’t really do it for me.
    Courtney Milan is an author I’d love to try though!

    • She’s great! Her recent contemporaries are terrific, and the historical series that starts with Unveiled is a delight. Santino Hassell and Alexis Hall are two #ownvoices m/m romance authors I like a lot (ignore me if you already read them faithfully :p).

  • Ok, so I read one romance way back in the mists of time (three or four years ago) and it was awful and put me off the genre entirely, which I know is unfair. But here you are offering me EXACTLY what I need right now! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • You’re welcome! And let me know how your reading goes — I can refine the recommendation algorithm if I know a bit more about which romance novels you’ve enjoyed or hated. I loooooove finding the right romance novel for new romance readers!

  • I’ve always wondered why romance novels have such terrible covers! Apologies if you like them, but it’s true. Take the writing away, and it’s exactly the kind of twee picture my grandmother would hang on her wall (I would say with more clothing… but, honestly, I don’t think my nan would mind, as long as everything is technically covered over.)

    **Anyway** (sorry, got distracted by that thought tangent,) it’s nice to see that it’s possible to find such inclusive and/or not-filled-with-douchebags romances! 🙂

  • Dinah Lord

    Thank-you for the ‘Hard Knocks’ rec – I read that this afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t read many romance novels, and my local bookshop doesn’t stock them (aside from the more ‘respectable’ chick-lit kind of thing). The Toast had some good recs (and judging by Lang’s comments in the Acknowledgements, she was part of the Toast commentariat) before its demise.