Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

I’ve been hearing about this book almost since it came out. There has been a lot of buzz around it. But historically I have not been a big fan of fantasy. When I think fantasy, I think elves and dwarfs and kings and queens and court intrigue and am just bored to death. Not interested. But I have read a lot more fantasy than usual lately and really liked it, though most of it has been urban fantasy. Recently, as my partner was reading this book, she told me numerous times that I would really like it. She has been right every other time, so I decided to finally read it. I think I need to change my first reaction to fantasy going forward.

The story is about a young woman who has studied to be a Scribe her entire youth. But as the day approaches for her to officially choose that direction, her military general mother requires her to become a Rider. This is a dangerous pursuit where most candidates die during training. At the end of the training, the cadets parade before dragons who may or may not choose them. And if they don’t find them worthy to even consider, may incinerate them. This would be challenging for any cadet, but the protagonist has limbs that easily disjoint and break, making her appear weak to other cadets and the dragons. The young woman makes her way through this school for Riders where her male best friend growing up preceded her by a year. Their relationship isn’t what is used to be. At the same time, the son of an executed traitor has it in for her as do many other cadets who see eliminating her a way to make their own path easier.

As I write this description, it all feels very melodramatic, but the writing is tight and keeps the story humming along. It never felt overly dramatic to me and very true to life as far as relationships go. This book falls into the newer category often referred to as romantasy, that is romantic fantasy. And there are some steamy sex scenes that would not be out of place in a romance novel. Remarkably, this all held together for me. I always wanted to find out what would happen next. But I never felt I knew for sure what that would be (though I had ideas). This is the first book in a series. I don’t often read the second book in a series these days, but I will be reading the sequel to this one very soon!

My rating: 4/5

Beach Read by Emily Henry

A woman and man lay on separate towels on the beach reading.

Appropriately enough, I read most of this book while lying on the beach during my recent vacation in Greece. I added it to my ereader before I left in case I wanted a novel as a break from all my short fiction magazines. I’m glad I did.

The protagonist is struggling to write her next book. A contributing factor is the recent death of her father with whom she was very close. At the funeral she learns that the father that she idolized her whole life had an affair. To make matters worse, her mother knew about it and refuses to discuss it. And the icing on the cake is that her father left her the summer home in Michigan that he bought during that affair.

She decides to go to the house for the summer with the plan to bang out the text of her book while clearing out the house and selling it. This turns out to be more emotional than she bargained for. And her neighbor doesn’t make it any easier. He turns out to be a “friend” from college that she had a crush on while they were both studying creative writing.

The bulk of the story is about how these two interact with each other, and (this is a romance) fall in love. Much of what I don’t like about many romance novels is that they often depend on people behaving badly or making ridiculous assumptions that could easily be overcome if those involved simply communicated. I like that this author doesn’t do that. Yes, there are misunderstanding and assumptions, but they make sense and last an appropriate length of time.

In the end, this book is about two people learning that in order to love another, it is necessary to learn about and love yourself, warts and all, and to extend that same courtesy to those in your life that you love. The result is a romance that feels rather more mature than others I have read. It was definitely an enjoyable beach read.

My rating: 4/5

Happy Place by Emily Henry

The author name at top and book title at center on a magenta background. At the bottom, six cartoon people are floating on and jumping into water.

I occasionally read a romance novel. One of my favorite authors in this genre is Emily Henry. When she recently released her latest novel, I requested it from my library. My turn finally came around earlier this week, and I finished it in three days.

About half way through this book, I wasn’t sure if I was going to end up liking it. The story is told from the point of view of Harriet. She and her long-time boyfriend Wyn broke up five months ago, sending her into a tailspin. They used to attend the annual friends vacation together, but this year is her turn after the split. But when she gets there having just about gotten over him, Wyn is there, too. They end up having to make the most of a bad situation for reasons I won’t spoil.

I wasn’t sure this book was for me because the crux of the plot is a miscommunication between Harriet and Wyn, or at least a lack of communication. They spend much of the book making assumptions about the other’s thoughts and feeling regarding how and why they broke up. I hate this trope! I mean, just talk to each other and clear it up already! But when the author gets around to clearing things up around 70% of the way through, it turns out there are good reasons for not having discussed it. And they feel legitimate and real rather than forced.

As I said, this is a miscommunication, enemies become lovers (again) romance. But it goes surprisingly deeper than that covering such themes as life purpose, individuality, self-care, mental health, and growing into yourself. I am very glad I finished the book. It may be my favorite of hers so far.

My rating: 4/5

People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

On an orange background with palm leaves at the edges, a man and a woman both recline on lounge chairs in outdoor clothing. He is reading a book, she is sunbathing

When I finished reading my latest short fiction magazine, I felt like I needed something lighter to read. I remembered that I had a romance novel by Emily Henry in my “to be read” list. I really liked the last book by her that I read. That’s how I found myself reading and thoroughly enjoying People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry.

Like all romances, this one was based on a trope, that being “friends become lovers”. For me, the difference between good romance fiction and that which I don’t like is how the trope is used to tell the story. Some novels the trope is the story and not much else. That is not the case with this author.

Alex and Poppy have been friends since orientation in college. They have little in common but are best friends regardless. Each year they take a vacation together. But two years ago, something happened on vacation that created silence between them instead of the ongoing text conversations they were used to. The story alternates between the annual vacations in the past leading up to that fateful summer trip and the present where they are planning and experiencing their latest vacation together.

As I write all that, it feels very formulaic. And it is at the bare bones. But the emotions and psychology of the story are what put the meat on those bones. For me, this is a story of growing up and growing into a deeper knowledge of oneself. And the dialog is funny and smart with likeable characters. This was another great book when I wanted an easy read that wasn’t mindless.

My rating: 4/5

A Fluffy Surprise

Book Lovers book cover

I don’t often read romance novels for the same reason that many people love them – they are rather formulaic. But when I was thinking about what novel to read next, I wanted something simple and not very challenging. I had just finished No Gods, No Monsters and needed some fluff. So I picked up a romance novel from my “books about books” stack – Book Lovers by Emily Henry. It was just what I needed.

Sure, it had the typical tropes like enemies become lovers. And it had the typical romantic expectations of what “love” looks like. That part I don’t really care for and didn’t so much in this book. But what I really appreciated about this book is that it turns many other themes on their head. In fact it looks at one of these from the other way around

So many romance stories are about the busy city man with a hard charging, no-nonsense, get-it-done, workaholic girlfriend. While in a small town on business, he meets and falls for a small town girl who shows him the error of his city ways and the charms of a slower small town life. Well, this book is about that city girlfriend who has experienced the unpleasant end of this trope, over and over again.

I won’t say much more for fear of ruining the story, but I will say that I found the ending rather satisfying. While it is neither a simple reversal of the main trope it explores, it also doesn’t completely give in the romantic ideal of leaving everything for the one you love. Instead it makes some space in a fluffy romance novel to explore more deeply what people are really like and what they really want for themselves and the ones they love.

Surviving Love

The Mountain Between Us book cover

On top of being a contemporary romance, The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin is a survival tale. Two strangers end up on single engine airplane attempting to go from Salt Lake City to Denver at night in a snow storm. Bad idea. Their pilot has a heart attack and dies but not before making a crash landing on a mountain top that leaves his passengers injured but alive… in the middle of nowhere.

My girlfriend and life partner recommended this book to me. She said it was her favorite by Charles Martin. I had read one of his other books (Water from My Heart) at her recommendation. It was extremely good, so I had high hopes for this one. It totally delivered.

My biggest complaint about romance books in general is that the characters are flat and unrelatable. I want stories where realistic people struggle with real-life problems in love and relationships. And they don’t make simple, one-dimensional, thoughtless choices. I just find that lazy writing and thinking. This book has none of that. The characters are real and genuinely care about each other. And like all humans, they have their struggles and issues.

The man in this book is married but separated from his wife. The woman is engaged and on the way home to her wedding when the plane crashes. Do they fall in love in the snow-capped mountains and make mad passionate love to each other? SPOILER ALERT! No, thank goodness, they do not. Instead they talk about their situation and about their partners while doing their best to get out of their desperate situation alive.

I won’t say much more for fear of ruining the book, but this is a superb story of survival and love — both romantic love and love in the sense of friendship and caring for your fellow human beings. I promise that it will both move and entertain you.

Getting Stronger

Heartbreak for Hire book cover

My latest romance read was Heartbreak for Hire by Sonia Hartl. I found this short novel much more enjoyable than my previous read. This was in many ways its opposite. That one was sex with a bit of story to hold it together. The sex scenes in this novel can be counted on one hand, but the story is pretty good. Don’t get too excited, though. It is a take on the enemies become lovers trope. Nonetheless it is fairly well done and enjoyable.

I prefer romances with strong female leads. The main character in this one wants to be strong, but she isn’t quite there. She is coming out of a bad breakup with an emotionally abusive boyfriend that she let control her. Now her employer is controlling her through that broken relationship. What makes the story mostly work for me is that the narrative is about the main character’s learning to take control of her life and what she wants to do with it.

As with all my experience with romance novels so far, this is not great literature. But it isn’t bad. I enjoyed it. But I am not sure how many more of these I will read. There are so many more books on my to read pile that are potentially much better than anything I expect to find in the romance genre.

A Little Taboo and Not Much Story

Seducing My Guardian book cover

For my second romance novel, I picked up more of a novella. It was part of a series called A Touch of Taboo by Katee Robert. Each story has a hint of a taboo subject. I saw the fourth book of the series recommended in my latest search. It is called Seducing My Guardian and is about a young woman who lost her parents in a tragic car accident at the age of sixteen. On her twenty-fifth birthday, at which she gains full access to the trust her parents left her, she decides to seduce her guardian. She never lived with this guardian. He shipped her off to boarding school and managed her financial affairs.

This was a quick read and falls into a subgenre that I would call “steamy sex held together with just enough story”. Obviously, she succeeds in seducing her guardian. They spend the night exploring and acting out sexual fantasies. The sex is well-written with a bit of the woman wondering about the motivation and psychology behind what she is doing. I largely found the novella simplistic and disappointing.

The author could have explored the relationship side of the story a bit more. And that led me to realize something about myself. I am not really interested in erotic stories for just the steamy sex. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate it. It’s just not enough. I want to know how they came to be together, how they might have a life together and deal with the challenges that life throws at two people sharing their bodies and their lives. That just wasn’t there in this book, and it left me wanting more.

Love at the End of the World

Last Light book cover

A few years ago, I got curious about romance novels. I had never read one. I had seen a lot of them growing up in the 80s – paperback covers with shirtless men and long blond hair blowing in the wind. But this is a huge industry, and I wanted to know more about it. When I asked my girlfriend for a recommendation, she told me to read Outlander.

I had heard of this book but never thought of it as a romance novel. It was time-traveling historical fiction, right? Yes. But is was also a romance novel with steamy sex scenes. The quality of the writing was way beyond the reputation that I had heard of for romances. I read the series through book four before I decided to drop it, and I didn’t read any more romance.

Recently, I decided to dive back into romance, maybe something a little less literary and a bit more mainstream for romance novels. I logged onto the subreddit r/romancebooks and searched for books with strong female main characters (FMC) and steamy sex scenes. I never knew there were so many subgenres in romance! After some digging through recommendation, I landed on reading Last Light by Claire Kent.

Last Light takes place after an asteroid hits Europe causing the breakdown of civilization. The setting reminded me a lot of Stephen King’s The Stand but without the deadly virus. The narrator is a young woman leaving her home town to join others who left before her. Her love interest is an older man who was a mechanic in that same town. They end up traveling together for safety. Obviously, they fall in love.

The plot was well-written and engaging. I genuinely wanted to know what would happen next. The sex scenes were steamy and fit well in the course of the story. None of it felt out of place and a break simply for a sex scene. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel with one exception. At the end of nearly every chapter (or maybe every chapter, I didn’t go back and check), the author makes some sort of reference to “love at the end of the world”. It was cliche. It was absurd and redundant given the plot. And it was tiresome to read over and over again.

Despite that one annoyance, I enjoyed my first dip into the waters of more typical romance fare. And I did some more research to find other novels that I might enjoy. I must admit is takes some work. A lot of the stories that I found in my research just make me shake my head. They aren’t my thing and aren’t for me. But I have some new possibilities. If I make it to the end of any of them, I’ll share here.