Angst and Ducklings: A Tiny Romance Round-Up

It’s Monday and we all probably all need some romance novels in our lives. Here are two new ones that you might want to pick up if you need something to get you through the holiday season. I received electronic copies of both of them from the publishers for review consideration, which did not influence my review because my good opinion is more costly than ebooks.

Wrong to Need You, Alisha Rai (Goodreads link!)

Wrong to Need You

Sadia Ahmad owns a cafe, tends a bar, and raises her son. When her dead husband’s brother comes back to town after years of radio silence, Sadia’s tidy world is thrown into disarray. Then they bang. A bunch. (Wrong to Need You is the second in Alisha Rai’s wonderfully angsty Forbidden Hearts series, but as with most romance serieses, you can read this one without reading the first one first.)

My favorite thing about Wrong to Need You is that Alisha Rai draws on tropes I love — a strong silent type for the hero, a stalwart single mom for the heroine, a resounding come-back-to-small-town-and-face-the-past plotline — and puts them in service of an emotionally satisfying story of two people trying to find their way. As in Hate to Want You, Rai gives her characters genuine flaws and struggles, which can’t be brushed aside by some good sex. The obstacles that stand in the way of Jackson and Sadia’s happily ever after are internal, but no less real: Each of the protagonists has to grapple with themselves and their past before they’re able to embrace the possibility of a real relationship.

Rai also includes an excellent cast of secondary characters. The Kane and Chandler families make their appearance again in this book, and Sadia has family of her own: Loving, if sometimes pushy, parents, and four sisters who adore and support her, even as they have their own ideas about the choices Sadia should be making. Watching Alisha Rai flesh out the town and residents that populate the pages of her Forbidden Hearts series has been a treat, and Wrong to Need You delivered an eminently satisfying romance that left me eager for Eve’s story.

PS I love it when romance novels set you up for what the next one’s going to be. It’s like the end of Nancy Drew mysteries. I love it. It’s the best. This has not been sarcasm.

It Takes Two to Tumble, Cat Sebastian

It Takes Two to Tumble

Much as I might like to try to summarize Cat Sebastian’s latest historical romance (Goodreads link!), she has already written what is perhaps the world’s most perfect summary of any romance novel ever. I give you:

It Takes Two to Tumble is the story of a free spirited vicar and a grumpy sea captain.  It’s basically a gay, regency Sound of Music, with far fewer children and no musical numbers.

Yep. The vicar, Ben Sedgewick, comes from free-spirited parents who lived without regard to the niceties and rituals of regency England. In some ways this was great — his father doesn’t much mind that Ben prefers men — and in other ways, it left Ben and his siblings adrift to manage for themselves. As an adult, Ben wants a life of comfort and predictability.

The sea captain, Phillip Dacre, plans to stop home just long enough to acquire a suitable tutor for his three children, now that their mother has passed away. But the children are running wild, and the vicar who’s minding them (by climbing trees with them and doing fractions about how to divide their evening pie) keeps making him see things in a new light.

It Takes Two to Tumble is — typically for Cat Sebastian — an immensely sweet romance novel in which the principal characters achieve happiness by having lots of honest conversations with each other. Phillip is mourning the loss of someone he never confessed his love to; Ben is engaged to his closest friend, Alice, who he fears will be alone in the world if Ben follows his heart and cries off from the marriage. Both of them are devoted to the Dacre children, but neither can see his way clear to making a life with them — in spite of the children’s obvious need for stability. There are also ducklings.

All in all, I tend to prefer a scootch more angst in my romance novels than It Takes Two to Tumble offered. But if you are on the hunt for something sweet and frank and open, hit up Cat Sebastian’s latest. It comes out on December 12th.

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.