Spies and Cons and Really Frank Conversations about Sex

It’s time for another romance novels round-up! I have read some pretty m.f. great ones in the last month, and I bring them all to you for your delectation and delight.

I frequently recommend Alyssa Cole’s Off the Grid series to romance newbies, particularly ones who are coming to romance from SFF. Her latest book, An Extraordinary Union, maintains everything I love about her earlier work, but this time with spies!

An Extraordinary Union

Elle Burns is a former slave, former staple of the abolitionist circuit, and current spy for the Union. Her eidetic memory makes her a unique asset, and she’s posing as a mute slave in Richmond as she tries to gain intelligence about the Confederacy’s plans. When she finds herself having a legit nice conversation with a visiting Confederate soldier, she starts to question herself but GUESS WHAT Y’ALL. He is not a real Confederate soldier after all, he is ANOTHER SPY.

Cole doesn’t shy away from the fear that dogs Elle’s every step when she’s living as a slave, and she doesn’t elide the horrors of slavery. At the same time, because the reader knows that Elle and Malcolm are going to win and live happily ever after, it doesn’t feel upsetting in the way that most fiction set in this time period (rightfully) does feel. If you (like me) are fed up with the master/slave Nazi/concentration camp victim romances that keep getting published somehow, An Extraordinary Union is a wonderful, and surprisingly fun, antidote.

When I first started reading Ruthie Knox, I feared that her heroines might be too manic pixie dream girly for me. But my fears have always been allayed, and her latest book, Madly, pulls off an array of emotional tricks with casual aplomb.

Madly

Allie and Winston meet by chance, at a bar, and because they both have a lot to get off their chests, they embark on a program of radical honesty with each other. “When you’re ready to mess everything up,” Allie says, “you can practice [being you] on the mailman.” So they become each other’s mailman (plus banging).

Knox sensibly populates her world with relationships other than the central one, so we get to see Allie struggling with being a sister and daughter, and Winston with being a father. They also have sex setbacks, which is vanishingly rare in romance novels: Sometimes the thing they both wanted to try doesn’t work exactly like they were imagining, and they have to put a pin in the sexytimes to talk about feelings or come up with a new plan of (sex) action. It’s refreshing and great, and Knox seamlessly puts the sex scenes in service of their burgeoning relationship. She’s one of my favorite contemporary romance novelists, and this may be her best book yet.

OMG and they talk about how non-penetrative sex is still sex. Allie says, “I want to say fuck you to the whole idea that getting penetrated is the point of the deal, like it’s not sex if there’s not something inside me. I’m inside me. I am.

Next up, I read Cathy Pegau’s Rulebreaker, the story of a woman called Liv who gets involved in a massive con that will get her fifty million credits and a new life. All she has to do is cozy up to the sexy head of a major company….but guess what. Guess what happens.

Rulebreaker

Ding ding ding! That’s right! Liv finds herself falling for Zia, the sexy, competent executive whose secrets she’s supposed to be learning. Rulebreaker is tremendous fun, with an array of shifting loyalties for Liv to sort through as she’s trying to decide where her heart lies. I have a spoilerish gripe, which I will discuss in the next paragraph. Jump down to the next book cover if you want to miss the spoiler!

Okay, are you gone?

Okay. So it turns out that Zia’s company is testing a new air filter? or something? on a bunch of prisoners who’ve volunteered to test this air filter while working in The Mines. Liv discovers that the death rates on these tests are higher than Zia has realized, and that many of the inmates are unwilling participants in the tests. And Zia’s really sorry that she didn’t put a stop to the unethical tests in the first place, before they reached this peak of unethicalness that she didn’t know about. Uh, but, I am not actually fine with love interests who are part of a corporation that’s doing tests on prisoners where one in five of them die? That’s morally disqualifying! And it dimmed my delight in this particular HEA. Like maybe Liv should find someone with equally nice boobs but who didn’t preside over a convict leasing program.

The thing that I am the trash of: Stories where one person has always been told that a quality they possess is Wrong and Bad and they are all messed up about it but then here comes their love interest like “Hey, I think that quality is very nifty; in fact it makes me want to bang you like a screen door in a hurricane.” If you also are the trash of that thing, please allow me to direct your attention to The Lawrence Browne Affair.

So Lawrence Browne is the scion of a terrible family who wants to not be terrible (yay), and he’s got an anxiety disorder (yay), and he’s all cooped up in his drafty miserable stately home trying to do Science (yay), all the while believing that he is Mad. Along comes Georgie Turner, his new secretary, who is secretly on the run from like a London gangster, and who is also the perpetual fuck-up of his family in that he has a penchant for doing things like getting in bad with London gangsters. The book not only features the thing I am the trash of (see above) but also some home renovation, which I always find immensely satisfying in fiction.1

What romance novels have y’all been reading lately?

  1. Not in real life. In real life home renovation seems hideously stressful.
  • These all sound pretty good, and I’m definitely in the mood for a romance, so thanks for the posting! (I’m esp. interested in the one with the protagonist with the eidetic memory because who doesn’t wish for that?!!!)

    • Hahahaha, I don’t know, my memory does a lot of selective editing that I’m generally not mad about. I don’t think I need to retain every moment and every detail that’s ever happened to me. :p But An Extraordinary Union is pretty great, and I recommend it very much!

  • Jeanne

    As a kid, I escaped into fiction a lot and was always being told (even in an academic family, go figure) that it was wrong to always have my “nose in a book” and be ignoring other people. When I met Ron he thought that quality was nifty. Although just now I was reading something and he came and sat near me and tried to get my attention away from what I was reading to say something he thought was important so maybe it’s a generally irritating quality for anyone you live with for very long…

    • Awww, that’s really sweet. And also, I love to read and love to hang out with people who love to read, and I still do come interrupt people while they’re reading if I have important news for them. I AM GUILTY. :p

  • Thanks for the recommendations! I don’t read much romance, but only because I find it hard to find books I’ll like in the genre (books without stereotypes, for example).

  • Both Madly and The Lawrence Browne Affair sound like they could be things I would enjoy, and my library has them both!

  • Akilah

    “but guess what. Guess what happens.” — I, for one, am shocked to find out that she starts to fall for Zia. Never saw it coming.

    Madly sounds neat-o. I might check it out.

  • EllenMCM

    There is home renovation? I AM THERE. I need to know though, do they talk about the home renovation, like “the ballroom floors need refinishing, and here is a lovely farm sink. Oh no, we found termites behind the wainscoting in the drawing room!” Or is it more like, “some servants and workers and stuff have been renovating our home. Now it is not falling down.”?

    Dear lord, that is oddly punctuated.

  • β€œHey, I think that quality is very nifty; in fact it makes me want to bang you like a screen door in a hurricane.” LOL

  • Home renovation during the Victorian era or earlier (I can’t tell from the cover image)? That sounds strangely satisfying.

  • Rachel

    I’m glad to you enjoyed An Extraordinary Union, it was such a refreshing romance novel. I love this segment so much and I always find new reads to add to my TBR. πŸ™‚ Ruthie Knox’s and Cat Sebastian’s books sound particularly interesting to me, so I’ll have to check them out.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    I am not a romance reader but I must say I do enjoy your romance book round ups πŸ™‚

  • Laila@BigReadingLife

    You’re doing a great service, Jenny, by posting these romance round-ups! I don’t read a lot of romances, but I trust your judgment and will keep these in mind when I’m up for one! The Alyssa Cole looks especially enticing.

  • I love this! I recently read some of Monica McCartney’s Highland Guard romance and while, so far, that’s the only romance series I follow, I’d definitely like to try some of your recommendations.