This is partly a list of book reviews and a request for book recommendations, and partly a Traumatic Tale from my Childhood. I am sorry you will have to suffer through Whatever Happened to Baby Sarah until you get to the good stuff!
So, Baby Sarah was a small, solemn and bespectacled child with a bowl haircut and a passion for flowered leggings and Jane Austen. She was also a very tiny militant feminist.
My mother married my father and moved to Ireland, which back in 1978 was a very different place to England. Mother had swinging hair and was brought up with the Beatles playing down the street, and she was stunned to find herself in a country where divorce and abortion were forbidden and the Catholic Church was extremely unhappy about the fact that Mother had Lived With A Man Before They Wed. My mama being my mama, she immediately joined a family planning clinic, started magazine and newspaper columns with sex advice, and was almost thrown down the stairs of her clinic while pregnant because protesters thought she was going to have an illegal abortion.
Abortion is still illegal in Ireland. Divorce was made legal twelve years ago - I still remember my parents sitting on the sofa holding hands and going 'Divorce, divorce, divorce!' (My parents are still married.)
This kind of thing has its effect on a child. I have a picture of myself aged two, balanced on the edge of a bin full of burning bras. I gave speeches about sexism in the playground and also drew helpful and informative sex diagrams in the gravel. And uh, I will not conceal this from you guys, but - a boy tried to play kiss chase with me and I had already decided it was promoting gender stereotypes and I, uh - I bit him. (And it was very wrong and violence is never the answer!)
So Baby Sarah was permitted to read anything she wanted, always. I'd gone through all my mother's sex books and was informed about all the facts of life when aged about four. When I was eight I read Dracula and my mother was so convinced I'd have nightmares that she had nightmares and came into my room extremely agitated to find me curled up peacefully with my vampire book cuddled in my arms.
So Baby Sarah, aged nine, was visiting her grandparents in England and she took a book down from the shelf confidently expecting it to be her friend like all books were. It was her very first romance novel.
RAVEN-HAIRED MARQUIS: I am a hardened rake and roue, and I hate all women!
BABY SARAH: Oooh, history! Man, I hope this dude gets a facial ulcer. Or the syph. (Baby Sarah was well up on certain aspects of history.)
FLAME-HAIRED SPIRITED INGENUE: Due to an unlikely but unfortunate set of circumstances, I am wandering the marquis's house alone at dead of night!
BABY SARAH: Poor girl. She is so stupid. I think she must be a half-wit.
RAVEN-HAIRED MARQUIS: Aha, alone in my house! Lady of the night!
FLAME-HAIRED SPIRITED INGENUE: Sir, I am no lightskirt!
RAVEN-HAIRED MARQUIS: That's what all women say. Whores.
BABY SARAH: Oh Mr Future Facial Ulcer, cut that disrespect out.
RAVEN-HAIRED MARQUIS: Oh well, time to go to Pleasure Town!
BABY SARAH: No! No, the gates to Pleasure Town are locked! Pleasure Town Is Invite Only!
FLAME-HAIRED SPIRITED INGENUE: Dear marquis, no, no, no, and also, no.
RAVEN-HAIRED MARQUIS: That's what all women say. Whores.
BABY SARAH: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
RAVEN-HAIRED MARQUIS: Let my manhood throb you to Pleasure Town!
FLAME-HAIRED SPIRITED INGENUE: No, no, no, no, a world of no, absolutely not, I refuse, I decline, I - Huh. Here we are at Pleasure Town. It is glorious.
BABY SARAH: Okay, your body has betrayed you. That's okay! That happens! Now alert the constabulary upon the instant.
RAVEN-HAIRED MARQUIS: Wow, you weren't a ho. Oh well you are now. Cue multiple visits to Pleasure Town, with special trips to the Pleasure Ice-cream Parlour and Pleasure Gift Shop.
FLAME-HAIRED SPIRITED INGENUE: Alas, I love him!
BABY SARAH: Whaa... oh I get it. Stockholm Syndrome! What an interesting book, examining Stockholm Syndrome and rape from the inside out. I am enthralled.
RAVEN-HAIRED MARQUIS: It is possible that, given your brave tolerance of all the rape, your virtuous defence of peasants and bunnies, and your occasional indignant foot stamps and fiery lock tossing, you may in fact not be a ho. Whoops. Sorry 'bout that. I love you. Let us be wed!
BABY SARAH: Now's your chance! This is his moment of weakness. Bop him over the head with a chamber pot and make a break for it across the tennis lawn!
FLAME-HAIRED SPIRITED INGENUE: Yay! Marriage and babies.
BABY SARAH: And then he got away with rape and she never recovered from Stockholm Syndrome the end? Oh my God, the chill unbelievable horror of it all.
Then Baby Sarah stayed up all night, stock still and terrified that a marquis would come and brainwash her. That book stayed with me a long time. I entirely refused to read romance because of it.
The most important thing to me in books are characters and the relationships between them, though: so I kept thinking that there should be some romance I liked. But every time I picked up a book at random, I found more Earls of Rape and redheaded dimwits. (I ended up with a terrible prejudice against redheads in books too, though recently I have loved a few and softened towards the fiery breed.)
Another thing I hated in romance were the sex scenes, the endless long scenes full of throbbing and utterly boring. To this day I flick through sex scenes with only an eye out for any unintentionally hilarious phrases like a lady's peak of ecstasy being referred to as a 'transcendent flight of pink flamingoes.'
The internet helped me, as it so often has. Georgette Heyer, it told me in an electronic siren song. No sex scenes. You'll like her.
So I picked up one Georgette Heyer and was most displeased to find a raven-haired young lord almost instantly making off with a lady. The dark-haired nobility! Was this what one could expect from an education at Eton?
Then the lady shot him, and told him he was being a silly over-dramatic fool, and fed him gruel so that he would be well-nourished and not get her into a lot of trouble by dying, and eventually married him. '... Awesome,' I said. 'Awesome.'
I immediately read a whole lot of Georgette Heyers, including one where the lady turned the dark-haired rake down flat and married a kind-hearted fop fond of pretty clothes, and another one where the lady heroine interrupted anyone who tried to make her passionate speeches by handing them a live duckling and running off at speed.
Heyer wasn't perfect - anti-semitism and punishing kisses were in unfortunate abundance, but this encouraged me enough to go on and find the brilliant romance novel review site, Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books. I wish that fantasy books had a site exactly like it.
I was looking for something like Georgette Heyer, and I found Loretta Chase. In one of her books, the heroine shoots the hero and blackmails him into marriage and then decides that he acts like a high-handed lunatic all the time because he is so highly strung. She feels a bit sorry for him. In another, the dashing young rake has a fatal weakness for nerdy ladies, and goes weak at the knees when the heroine starts describing her study of hieroglyphics.
So I was prepared to admit that okay, yes, romances could be awesome if they were historical and if they were light on the pre-marital sex scenes. (Seriously! People were thrown from their family homes and died in childbed like it was going out of fashion. I would have screamed at the top of my voice if a gentleman's hand had strayed to my waist, y'all.)
But I still didn't like contemporary romances, I thought. Nasty things, with endless sex scenes all over the place. All the throbbing manhoods made my eyes hurt.
And then I heard a few good things about Jenny Crusie. I picked up a book called Bet Me from the shelves. I flicked through it and put it down, and then I thought about the dialogue so much that the next day I had to go back and buy it. The hero was insecure because he was dyslexic! The heroine was insecure about her weight, so the hero said 'you're fine, you're fine' and when she wouldn't listen he tied her up and instead of bringing her to Pleasure Town as she expected, he fed her Krispy Kreme doughnuts! I was enthralled.
Crusie and Chase have both written books I didn't like much, but the books I did like I really liked. Real characters, interacting in realistic and hilarious ways, and all the sex scenes seemed real, and were even allowed to be funny.
My ban on romance is lifted, and I try not to judge genres so much lest mine be judged. And now I am trying some Mary Balogh. So far the lady has dripped lemonade into the icy duke's eye: I am optimistic.
Other genres I used to be prejudiced about and which I found awesome books in were sci-fi and paranormal romance. I shall make more posts about those, but for now - what romances would you guys recommend? And what do you read that, you know, you thought you never would read?