With close to 40 reviews in January, romance is getting some serious love from Australian women writers challenge participants. But before I get to the round-up, I’d like to make some brief observations on some emerging trends that I’ve found interesting even after only a month and that affect—and will continue to affect—the summary posts for romance throughout the year.

One of the difficulties I’ve had in managing the romance list is the grey area between romance genre books and mainstream contemporary novels that feature female protagonists with a romantic subplot. It’s impossible for me to read every title submitted to check that it has been submitted to the most appropriate genre. If the imprint under which the title is published doesn’t provide clarity, I look to fellow readers—mostly from Twitter—for a consensus on whether or not a title is romancey enough.

Generally, I’ll be erring on the side of caution. Although this is problematic for strict genre readers, in the spirit of AWW and what it hopes to promote—work by Australian women writers across all genres—the only titles I actively exclude from the romance list are titles in which the romantic subplot does not end happily. This is a dealbreaker, I’m afraid. (Note that this does not apply to erotica titles, which don’t require a happy ending, although they do require happy endings, if you get the drift.)

What’s interesting is seeing what reviewers consider as romance when they submit AWW links. Occasionally I see titles that feature infidelity, love triangles or tragedy—with few exceptions, I move these to the contemporary fiction category. (Feel free to debate this decision in the comments!)

And now, let’s talk about books!

Here are some quick stats:

  • Total romance titles reviewed in January: 29
  • Titles published by digital imprints: 12 (~41%)
  • Titles published by Harlequin (all imprints): 15 (~52%)
  • Titles with a contemporary setting: 23 (~79%)
  • Titles with a rural setting: 15 (~52%)

The Girl in the Hard Hat by Loretta Hill (published by Random House)Loretta Hill and Rachael Johns led the author pack with 5 reviews each. Interestingly, they both write contemporary love stories in rural Australia. What’s fantastic about these rural-set stories is the variety of places, occupations and characters that readers are able to explore.

Johns is closer to what I’d consider genre romance—her books are very much focused on the romance as the central plot—but Hill’s The Girl in the Hard Hat, which garnered the most reviews for one title, is probably as close as a commercial Australian fiction can get outside of the genre imprints. What I love most about this story is that, as Lauren mentions in her review, ‘Hill creates such a unique premise in outback romance—a woman working in a male dominated field in a male dominated community.’

The One That Got Away by Kelly Hunter (published by Harlequin Kiss)It’s not surprising that Harlequin leads the publisher pack, given that most of its imprints are romance-focused. Their new KISS line was launched at the end of January, and the launch authors include two Australians: Kelly Hunter and Nikki Logan. Hunter’s The One That Got Away is my first keeper for 2013. As I said in my review of the book, it’s ‘a beautifully written, subtle, angsty story that…cements Kelly Hunter as one of the best writers of modern category romance.’

How to Get Over Your Ex by Nikki Logan (published by Harlequin Kiss)Bree reviewed Logan’s How To Get Over Your Ex, and of the three KISS titles she read, ‘it’s quite easily the one I’ve enjoyed the most’ and that it’s ‘a little bit like a mixed bag of lollies where you keep pulling out a lolly that’s even better than the one you just had—it’s more than just a contemporary romance with a few laughs, it’s also a journey of self-discovery’ for the characters.

The Man Plan by Elise K. Ackers (published by Destiny Romance)In other romance imprints, Shannon at Giraffe Days loved The Man Plan by Elise K. Ackers. I’ve read this book (review pending) and I know what Shannon found so engaging. The banter between the main characters is fun, filled with pop culture references, and it exemplifies what I love about the new digital imprints from Australia: characters who sound like people I know, in situations I can (more or less) believe.

Shannon’s review also touched on something that I think is becoming more obvious, particularly in contemporary category (and category-like) romances:

It had everything I liked and plenty I didn’t even know I liked…[I]t was fresh and, while staying true to the genre, deviated from many typical clichés.

Subverted stereotypes and clichés seem to be a recurring phenomenon in my reviews, too, and I think that’s definitely the right direction for the genre.

Tempt The Devil by Anna Campbell (published by HarperCollins)We only logged one historical romance review this month, but it’s by Anna Campbell, Australia’s favourite romance author, and the book happens to be my favourite of hers. Lauren writes that she was blown away by Tempt the Devil: ‘I was expecting a sweet historical romance; instead I got a sexy, multifaceted love story between an unconventional couple—a lord and a courtesan. Not only was the story set largely in the bedroom, but it was also more focussed on the male protagonist’s perspective than the female. I was captivated at every scene.’

Addition by Toni Jordan (published by Text)Readers with a more literary bent might find it interesting to read Marg and Kaetrin’s reviews of Addition by Toni Jordan, which also happens to be on my keeper shelf. I reviewed this in 2009 with the note that ‘while the romance doesn’t dominate, it drives the story’. Every review I’ve read of this book has touched on different aspects of the story or the characters, and I never tire of hearing other readers’ reactions to it.  I happily bend the romance genre definition to encompass this book!

For something a little different, Lauren from the The Australian Bookshelf posted Q&As with a couple of romance authors: Rachael Johns and Elise K. Ackers.

One last thing. It seems to me that most of the titles we have reviewed this month have been romances that tend to feature non-explicit sex. It would be great to see more erotica titles reviewed, as well as romances at the hotter end of the spectrum. February is, as the shops continually remind us, the month of luuurve. I invite you, my fellow reviewers, to steam it up a notch!

Kat Mayo runs Book Thingo, a reader blog with a focus on romance fiction. She is the editor of Booktopia’s Romance Buzz 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). Her love of romance books and predisposition for killing fairies are definitely hereditary.