Romance plus

I enjoy reading romance, whether it’s boy meets boy, boy meets girl or girl meets girl. I am less interested in threesomes (though I’ve written one in fanfiction). I often, however, read well written books and end up giving them only three star reviews and then forgetting them completely. I was wondering what it is that makes me faintly dissatisfied with a lot of romance books and realised I need romance plus…

Romance plus crime or mystery.

Romance plus fantasy.

Romance plus historical interest.

Romance plus external drama.

In other words, stories where the romance is central but doesn’t play the starring role throughout. Or in more ‘other words’, stories that cross genres – and for that reason can be hard to find.

The first three are fairly obvious. I have to say I love it when more than one box is ticked (e.g. historical crime). There is excitement generated by the world building or by the mystery and that adds immeasurably, for me, to the pleasure of the story.

The last perhaps needs to be unpacked. If the protagonists are going to face drama in their search for a HEA or HFN (I don’t like sad endings in fiction – they’re all too prevalent in the non-fiction I read) I need the drama to come from outside. There are plenty of romance tales that focus on the angst faced by characters who are caught up in their own self doubt or immediate family problems. I prefer it when they come up against things like natural disasters or the dangers posed by social norms within their society. I’m not so keen on war, though I do read it. It reminds me too much of war stories which, as a genre, I tend to avoid. (Again, there’s quite enough war in my non-fiction reading.)

I don’t necessarily want romance plus sex. I will happily read explicit scenes and don’t want any ‘fade to black’ at the bedroom door. However, the slightest hint that the story is in fact a vehicle for sex scenes and I’m instantly turned off. I also find, in this respect, that less is more. I like the UST that precedes the sex, and the personal development that accompanies it far more than details about the mechanics. My imagination is much more likely to work on its own, without the author spending pages explaining unnecessarily how Tab A went into Slot B. Even in books that otherwise fit my preferences, I tend to skim those parts.

This is not to say that I won’t enjoy sweet stories featuring the initial get-together or maybe the effect on one partner’s child, but as a rule these are quickly blurred in my memory into one long trail of sugar. If they’re well written they’ll get their three stars, but no more. Obviously, if a book meets my other criteria but is badly written it won’t make even the three star grade.

The romance plus books are the ones that make four or five stars in my memory and my reviews. Incidentally, five stars are usually reserved for books I would re-read. This cuts out most crime stories because they don’t work as well second time around.

There are the five star series like Seanan McGuire’s October Daye novels, KJ Charles’ Magpie Lord or Kaje Harper’s Hidden Wolves. These do have crime, which adds to their interest, but the crime is not the absolute focus; the magic is (or werewolf society in the case of Hidden Wolves). Then there are the five star standalones like Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks with enough magic to make the pages sparkle, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy with its piercing dissection of Indian society and politics. And of course Lord of the Rings, which is kind of ‘high romance’ in the mediaeval sense. My comfort reading is Georgette Heyer’s long list of Regency romances but I think it’s the focus on historical detail that makes them so memorable for me rather than the romance element. (Other comfort reading involves Pratchett’s Discworld and Lindsey Davis’ Falco series, both of which have varying degrees of romance but focus on social or historical issues.)

I’m sure some of you thoroughly enjoy the books I discard and find comfort in what I think of as saccharine reading. We all have different needs when it comes to fiction. My need is definitely for romance plus!

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