I waited for the literary exorcism that never came. I’d broken the news to my family, my friends, my former colleagues at an independent bookshop, fellow students in my fancy publishing course, my one-year-old cousin, that guy I met on the tram the other day … I read romance books. A lot of them. I expected someone to thrust Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom with all the fervour of a priest brandishing his crucifix. And yet, I’m still waiting for my literary day of judgment. Turns out that my friends trust my taste, even though they might not share it. And well, everyone knows I’m a sucker for entertaining and well-written books, whether it be Anna Funder’s All That I Am or Meredith Duran’s A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal.
The first romance book I bought was about an aristocratic concubine. It contained political powerplays, zingy Wilde-esque one-liners and, it has to be said, plenty of dirty sex, all set in nineteenth-century Venice. This book was Loretta Chase’s Your Scandalous Ways. I’d been directed to it by various book blogs and had finally hunted down a copy at a second-hand bookshop. It wasn’t pretty, with heaving bosoms and airbrushed abs screaming from the cover, but I convinced myself to buy it. I emerged from my house the next day a changed reader. Just as the heroine Francesca throws herself out of the hero’s arms and into a Venice canal, so too did I want to throw myself into romance books. This was a genre that could be enjoyable and challenging – thanks to the talents of some incredible writers – just like any other.
Bettie Sharpe’s retelling of Cinderella, Ember, is another wonderful example. Except that ‘wonderful’ is too limp a word to describe Sharpe’s writing. It’s harsh, and fierce, and funny. And thank goodness, Sharpe has hardened Cinderella up from the girl who thinks a pumpkin is a pretty sweet ride. But Ember has to be tough. Her mum died young, her dad’s a bit of an airhead (he dies too), and Prince Charming is so-called because he was blessed by his fairy godmother at birth to have a charm that’s irresistible. So Ember does what any girl would do. She learns dark magic so she can scare and manipulate her way to immunity from the prince’s charm. She’s not nice. She’s not soft-spoken. She’s not sentimental. Ember shows Samuel L. Jackson what a badass motherfucker’s really like. And that’s a little confronting.
After all, Cinderella’s meant to be nice. She’s meant to be valued because of how sweet, delightful and beautiful she is. Ember’s none of these things. She’s loyal, talented, intelligent and a bit of a bitch. In fact, I might bring out the f-word: Sharpe’s retelling is almost, well, feminist. Ember‘s like drinking a chocolate thickshake after a life of drinking tap water.
Not every romance book has a memorable heroine. Some of them are soft and gentle, undiscovered land for the strong male heroes to discover. And some of the heroes make you want to call Assholes Anonymous to come and pick up their escaped member. That’s why I’m so happy that one of the booksellers I worked with last year introduced me to the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books website.
The hilarious woman behind this website, Sarah Wendell, has guided me towards some fantastic books, including The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook. With zombies, Huns, zeppelins, a plot to destroy the world and a meltingly good romance, The Iron Duke is like Indiana Jones on feminist fantasy crack. But fantasy and romance combined? Kids, you’ve got to be able to disregard snide coming from two directions to read this book. But it’s worth it. Mina is a Detective Inspector with the London Metropolitan Police who is investigating a dead body found on the Iron Duke’s estate. A dead body is never a simple matter, and the plot steamrolls into battle against some crazed, yet powerful, moralists. Brook’s engaging and clean writing gets you so caught up in the story you forget you’re reading at all.
Apart from some gentle mockery directed at the cover (three words: naked man chest), my fellow indie booksellers were quite enthusiastic about my reading tastes. Some co-workers even shared them. And we ended up getting a few romance books into the shop, with Lauren Willig’s The Secret History of the Pink Carnation looking damn fine sitting next to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
It’s my professional opinion that more indie bookshops should stock romance books. Not only are many of them entertaining, they are often educational, having taught me a variety of historical insults and sexual positions. Well, not really. But I know you’ve just been waiting for me to address the big white bed in the room: the poundingly, thrustingly good sex that romance characters apparently have on a regular basis. All I’m going to say is that it’s nice to see female characters having good sex for a change. But it’s not just gratuitous. Sex in romance books functions as a plot device to take the characters to the next relationship stage, to create drama, to demonstrate character, and to also make these books delightfully salacious.
I closed Your Scandalous Ways, Ember and The Iron Duke feeling satisfied, entertained and challenged. And sometimes, that’s precisely what you want from a book.
Lauren Whybrow works in publishing (sadly, not at Mills & Boon), and spends the rest of her time reading.