It is a truth universally acknowledged among romance readers that our favourite genre is one that is written by women for women. So when the Australian Women Writers Challenge was announced last year, I hoped it would be a way to bring the romance genre to readers who wouldn’t normally pick up a romance book.
With 127 reviews from 43 different reviewers to browse through—which includes 92 different titles and 65 authors—I’m confident that everyone will find at least one book with a romantic or erotic element to enjoy.
But first, a caveat. Because the category for romance includes romance, erotica and romantic suspense, there’s a wider variety of titles and authors to choose from than I would normally include under the banner of the romance genre. For genre readers, this is a mixed blessing, because one of the defining elements of the modern romance genre is the happy romantic ending. So for the romance readers out there: you may have to kill a fairy (aka read the back of the book first) when trying books from non-romance publishers and authors.
(I hope I haven’t shocked the non-romance reading crowd. If it makes you feel better, E L James’s books create more fairies than we can possibly kill. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
In defence of romance
One of the difficulties of being a romance reader—and, I assume, a romance author—is that the genre is beleaguered by stereotypes and assumptions that not only dissuade other readers from trying our books, but which are used to denigrate us for our reading and writing choices.
Romance scholar Laura Vivanco provided an brief history and overview of Australian romance fiction in her guest post, Australian romance writing — what’s there to take seriously?
The AWW blog also hosted a series of posts in defence of romance fiction, and these posts are a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the appeal of the genre. Here are some excerpts:
I take issue with the fact that a woman should feel embarrassed to be seen reading a romance novel when no one blinks at a man reading a western or a crime thriller. What is it about women’s fiction that makes it less in the eyes of the literati, when as a genre it sells so much more? — In defence of books written by women for women by Louise Cusack (author)
When we consider what romance fiction brings to feminism, it’s not enough to talk about what we as individuals get out of romance fiction or how we interpret this book or that. Knowing the genre’s popularity among female readers, we should also be asking: How do women read romance and why do they love these books so much? Only then, I think, will we have a better understanding of the genre’s importance and influence in women’s lives. — For women by women: Is romance writing inherently feminist? by Kat Mayo (me)
… the bottom line is this: if a genre by women, produced by women, edited by women, published by women with an express purpose of being read by women doesn’t deliver frank, honest, and open debate about women’s health, their bodies, their sexuality, and their choices…in short, if romance doesn’t step up into the vacuum that currently exists, who will? — Should romance be feminist? by Kate Cuthbert
Before we get into the AWW reviews in detail—and in further defence of romance fiction, I suppose—I’d like to highlight some outstanding achievements by Australian women writers of romance fiction.
The standout author of 2012 would have to be Fiona Lowe, whose Carina Press book, Boomerang Bride, won both the RITA and the R*BY (which is like winning the Oscars and the Logies but for books). This book was reviewed by author Kylie Scott, Marg at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader, and Shelleyrae at Book’d Out.
Last year, it was also fantastic to see some romance panels at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. ‘A Fine Romance’, a panel with Stephanie Laurens, Rachael Treasure and Su Dharmapala, was covered by several blogs participating in the AWW challenge, including 1 girl…2 many books, The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader, and Book Thingo.
The most reviewed romance author in 2012 was contemporary romance author Rachael Johns, who was reviewed a whopping 12 times for 3 different titles. Although most of these are for her outback romance, Jilted, her Carina Press books were also popular, with several reviews of One Perfect Night and a review of Stand-In Star (reviewed by Marg at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader).
Romantic suspense author Helene Young also did very well with 7 reviews for 3 different titles. Erotica author Krissy Kneen and category romance author Sarah Mayberry were reviewed 5 times each, while Elise K. Ackers, Barbara Hannay, Cathryn Hein and Kelly Hunter were all reviewed 4 times each.
Popular titles by subgenre
In erotica, the most popular book was Triptych by Krissy Kneen. This anthology isn’t for readers who like a conventional romance. I love the way Kneen knits words together, but before I recommend this book to people, I make sure to mention that the stories feature bestiality and incest.
But don’t take my word for it; here are the reviews:
My favourite review quote:
If [Anaïs] Nin is a tempestuous love affair, Kneen is a fling: It’s brief, and after a while you can’t remember why you liked it, only that you had to have it. — Sophie Shanahan
Romantic suspense is an interesting genre in Australia, because what’s sold here as romantic suspense is unlikely to be romancey enough for overseas readers. In any case, it’s no surprise that the most popular romantic suspense author also garnered the most reviews for one title in the subgenre.
You can read the reviews of Burning Lies by Helene Young:
My favourite review quote:
The attraction was immediate, but she didn’t give trust easily. She was suspicious of everyone, and needed to check him out first, in more ways than one. — Brenda
I’m bundling all romance crossovers with sf, fantasy and paranormal elements in this category, simply because there weren’t enough reviews to warrant separate groupings. This was surprising to me, given the (seemingly) never-ending supply of romance books featuring vampires, shapeshifters, fairies, goblins and aliens.
Erotic fantasy author Denise Rossetti received 3 reviews:
My favourite review quote:
what is most striking about this novel is the subtly pervasive character development that takes two hollow people from impenetrable internal barriers to a completely believable, honest relationship. — Kate
My favourite review quote:
these are liberated ladies who don’t belive that a priestly blessing is required prior to pleasure — Heidi
Beloved historical authors (if local and international reader awards are to be believed) Anna Campbell and Anne Gracie were reviewed once each.
The standout title in 2012 for romance fiction across all the subgenres was Jilted by Rachael Johns, which was reviewed 7 times. As with romantic suspense, locally published single-title contemporary romances tend not to fit neatly into the genre—they’re often not romancey enough. When I read Jilted, it was as if my two worlds collided. Finally, here was an outback romance that I could recommend to die-hard romance readers.
To see if it’s your cup of tea:
Review by Bree (1 girl…2 many books)
Review by Jayne (The Australian Bookshelf)
Review by Jenny Schwartz (author)
My review (Book Thingo)
Review by Kylie Scott (author)
Review by Shellyrae (Book’d Out)
Review by Steph (Read in a Single Sitting)
My favourite review quote:
Jilted is a celebration of life in the country that doesn’t glamorise it, but does reveal a love and respect for the people who live and work on the land. — Jenny Schwartz
I left the best for last because my love affair with romance fiction began with category romance. It’s perhaps the most maligned of the subgenres, but what non-romance readers don’t understand is that it can also deliver some of the most emotionally wrenching scenes I’ve ever read. There are no standout titles in this subgenre—at a gazillion new releases per month, I can understand why—but there are two standout authors: Sarah Mayberry and Kelly Hunter. They also happen to be two of my favourite Australian romance authors.
Mayberry pipped Hunter by 1 review, so I’ll list her titles, but I urge you to try Hunter as well, if you can:
Her Best Worst Mistake — Review by Bree (1 girl…2 many books)
Her Best Worst Mistake — Review by Kylie Scott (author)
Her Secret Fling — Review by David Golding
Hot Island Nights — Review by Bree (1 girl…2 many books)
Within Reach — Review by Bree (1 girl…2 many books)
I’m intrigued that category romance dispenses with even the illusion of suspense, something that most literary novels are afraid to do. Here, it really isn’t the destination that matters, but the trip — David Golding
Shelleyrae (Book’d Out) led the reviewing pack with 16 reviews of fiction with romantic or erotic elements.
Kylie Scott wasn’t far behind with 13 reviews, and I find this particularly noteworthy as she’s also a romance author. It’s actually quite unusual to find romance authors who review within the genre, so props to Kylie.
I clocked in 12 reviews, but I’m determined to double my count this year, so everyone had better watch out!
Jayne (The Australian Bookshelf) reviewed 11 books, and by the looks of things, she’s already going gangbusters with romance fiction reviews for 2013.
One of the issues in trying to cover all the recent releases by Australian women writers in romance fiction is that romance titles come out so frequently during the year that it’s difficult to keep up. I’m hoping that in 2013 we’ll see even more titles, authors and bloggers in the AWW Challenge reviews.
The very short version for the skimmers
The one book that made me sit up and think, I haven’t read a book like this before, was Grease Monkey Jive by Ainslie Paton. I enjoyed many of my AWW Challenge reads, but this one had the perfect mix of romance, Australian-ness and uniqueness that I found amazing and difficult to tear myself from.You can read my review here, and here’s an excerpt:
I think Paton’s narrative style is unique in the genre—I haven’t read a romance book like this before. It’s a double-edged sword. The slow build up will frustrate readers expecting a romance novel as you’d typically find in the genre. But the story as a whole moves rather beautifully
David Golding’s review of Sarah Mayberry’s book ends with what I think is the perfect note on which to end the 2012 AWW round-up for romance fiction:
I’m left with the question, why wouldn’t I read one again? The only answer I have is that book discourse is structured in such a way that I am unlikely to encounter romance novels. That’s not a very good answer; that’s someone else’s choices making me.
I look forward to reading about your choices in 2013. Bring on the lurrrve!
Kat Mayo runs Book Thingo, a reader blog with a focus on romance fiction and related events, and is a regular contributor to the Australian Romance Readers Association newsletter. On Twitter (@BookThingo), she is known as the fairy killer (someone who reads the ending of a book first). Last year, she curated Raunchy Romance Storytime at Customs House Library, and there’s an old issue of the (sydney) magazine with a photo of Kat at the library surrounded by stacks of Mills & Boon books. Because what could be sexier than books?