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.

Blood Magic and Apocalypses: A Romance Novels Round-Up

Welp, here it is somehow Friday already, and I do not feel that I have accomplished anything this week. Anyone have good weekend plans? Mine focus heavily on hibernation. In the meantime, here are some romance novels I’ve been reading lately.

Rag and Bone, KJ Charles

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.)

KJ Charles writes about half-and-half straight historical romance novels and creepy magic creepiness romance novels, and I would be hard-pressed to say which genre I prefer. Rag and Bone is in the latter category, a companion novel to her “Charm of Magpies” series. Crispin was raised by a warlock and got into bad habits, but now he has been found by good magic-users, who are trying to teach him to do magic that doesn’t skip on the raggedy edge of necromancy. Unfortunately for him, and for his (secret, cause it’s olden times) lover, a dustman called Ned, there is an old, malevolent force stalking the streets of London.

Rag and Bone is hella creepy — as are all the books in this series: come for the sexytimes, stay for the nightmare-inducing British witchcraft.1 In his warlock days, Crispin cut off a piece of his finger and used the bone to make a pen that writes in his blood and serves as a conduit for his magic. There’s unexplained spontaneous human combustion. There’s the sound of singing, and nobody to do the singing. As always in Charles’s books, you get halfway through the book and can’t imagine how things are going to work out for her characters; but then, of course, they do. This is romance! So knowing that, it’s just fun to watch Charles get her characters into increasingly horrific scrapes, trusting that she’ll also be able to get them back out.

Mixed Signals, Alyssa Cole

The third in Alyssa Cole’s Off the Grid series, Mixed Signals is best read after the first two — but you should read the first two!2 The basic premise of the series is that solar flares (I think? I’m fuzzy on the science) have put out the lights across America. The chaos is about what you’d expect, and the survivors of the immediate aftermath must find a way to make their lives in an irretrievably altered society. Since this is a combination of two things I love — romance novels and process dystopias — I am obviously in for this.

By the start of Mixed Signals, it is years on from the initial collapse of society, and the country is rebuilding. Maggie Seong was only a kid when the lights went out, and now that she’s heading off to college, there’s been enough progress to where there are, you know, colleges to go to. As Maggie struggles to work out what she wants, her campus faces attacks from Luddite groups who want to undo the progress that everyone has worked so hard to achieve. The central romance (of the friends-to-lovers type) is a little thin, actually, but I didn’t mind because Cole’s worldbuilding is so much fun. I love this series, and I hope Cole keeps thinking of new stories for this world she’s created.

Once upon a Marquess, Courtney Milan

I…didn’t really care for this one. Courtney Milan was one of my first introductions into romance novels, way back in 2012/2013 sort of time, and it was sort of a revelation to me that romance novels could be funny and feminist and great. But I haven’t loved her most recent historicals (her book Trade Me was quite good! with all the negotiating of power dynamics!), and Once upon a Marquess was heavy-handed in the way that’s been frustrating me with Milan lately. Sigh!

It’s particularly sad because Once upon a Marquess is the first in a new series, the kind where each family member gets a story, and I love those. I’ll probably read at least one more in the Worth series before giving up, though.

Listen to the Moon, Rose Lerner

If you have talked to me about romance novels in the last recently, you’ll probably have heard me say, “ROSE LERNER SHOULD BE MORE FAMOUS.” Listen to the Moon is more grist for that opinion mill. The historical world her characters inhabit feels completely lived in, and the obstacles that stand between her protagonists and their happy ending are never contrived.

Listen to the Moon is a particularly fun book because it’s that rarest of beasts, a historical romance between two working-class people. John Toogood is a gentleman’s gentleman who has lost his position through no fault of his own, while Sukey is a maid-of-all-work who drives John mad by settling for good-enough (rather than perfection). Rose Lerner has obviously done extensive research into the ins and outs of being a house servant in the 1800s. This book is a treat on every level.

What about y’all? Read any good romance lately? I need some recommendations for upcoming airplane travel!

  1. Or the other way around! I don’t know your life.
  2. Confession, I cheated and skipped the second one because it was checked out at my library. I don’t recommend this. I followed the plot of Mixed Signals just fine, but I wished I hadn’t missed out on whatever went on in Signal Boost.