For Australian romance readers, March has started off with a bang with the Australian Romance Readers Convention (ARRC 2013) in Brisbane last weekend. Okay, that was officially in March, but it’ll be old news by the time I write the next round-up, so I’m including it in this one.

Australia’s favourite romance authors

Congratulations to all the winners of the Australian Romance Readers Awards, presented at the gala dinner at ARRC 2013. Only two of the winning authors were not Australian (although Nalini Singh is from New Zealand, and I think most Australian readers claim her for our own). Not only is this is a reflection of the talent of local authors, but I think it also highlights the importance of connecting with local readers.

You can read my recap of the event at Book Thingo, but here’s a list of winners, including links to AWW reviews where possible.

  • Favourite Romance Author — Anna Campbell (reviewed at The Australian Bookshelf)
  • Favourite Continuing Romance Series — Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh
  • Favourite Paranormal Romance — Dead, Actually by Kaz Delaney
  • Favourite Sci-Fi, Fantasy or Futuristic Romance — Alliance Forged by Kylie Griffin
  • Favourite Short Category Romance — Cracking The Dating Code by Kelly Hunter
  • Favourite Historical Romance — Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed by Anna Campbell
  • Favourite Contemporary Romance — Jilted by Rachel Johns (reviewed at Book’d Out, RIASS, The Australian Bookshelf, Kylie Scott’s blog, Book Thingo, Jenny Schwartz’s blog, 1 girl…2 many books)
  • Favourite Erotic Romance — Bared To You by Sylvia Day
  • Favourite Romantic Suspense — Dead Heat by Bronwyn Parry

The coverage of AWW blogs is surprisingly, well, dismal. Almost all the reviews are for the same book, and the one straggler only made it through because it was against the author and not a particular title. My guess is that most romance book reviews posted on AWW have been for new releases. It’ll be interesting to see if in next year’s awards the winners will be better represented on in the Challenge.

February AWW Challenge highlights

Beneath Outback Skies by Alissa Callen (published by Random Romance)There were 33 titles reviewed in February under romance fiction and erotica. The most popular authors were historical romance author Anne Gracie and rural romance author Alissa Callen, each of whom were reviewed four times. Callen is a debut author, whose book, Beneath Outback Skies, published through Random Romance, also received the most reviews (four) this month. Shelleyrae at Book’d Out called it a ‘winsome contemporary romance’. Lauren at The Australian Bookshelf led the reviewing pack with five reviews.

Here are some stats:

  • Total romance titles reviewed in February: 33
  • Titles published by digital imprints: 25 (~76%)
  • Titles published by Harlequin (all imprints): 13 (~39%)
  • Titles published by Random House (all imprints): 13 (39%)
  • Titles published by Penguin (all imprints): 7 (21%)
  • Titles with a contemporary setting*: 25 (~76%)
  • Titles with a rural setting*: 6 (~18%)

* Note: Includes duplicate titles

The skew towards contemporary titles — many of which are outback stories that, strictly speaking, probably wouldn’t pass muster as genre romance, but as I’ve discussed before, I’m using a broad definition — reflects the fact that many of the AWW reviewers are generalists rather than romance-only readers.

Our reviewers seem to lapping up the new offerings from various digital imprints, including Escape (Harlequin), Destiny Romance (Penguin), Random Romance (Random House) and Momentum (Pan Macmillan), as well as the outback stories on offer. I suspect this has to do with their accessibility on NetGalley and Edelweiss, as the digital imprints compete for readers and reviews. I think this is great for the genre and for Australian writers — the more reviews they get, the more likely it is that readers will be enticed to try their books.

And now, let’s talk about books! Here are some of my favourite reviews from last month:

The Bride Stripped Bare by Nikki GemmellErotica

The one erotica title on this month’s list is The Bride Stripped Bare by Nikki Gemmell, reviewed by Tarla Kramer. I love the style of her short review:

You borrow the book five years after everyone else was raving about it, because while you are ashamed to be sucked into books everyone reads a la Fifty Shades, you are still dying to find out what all the fuss was about.

Books that defied expectation — not your grandmother’s romance

Drive me to Distraction by Caitlyn Nicholas (published by Momentum)One of my goals for AWW is to force guilt bribe entice readers into trying a romance despite their inclinations. Marisa Wikramanayake did just that (without any effort required on my part, I should add) and found herself a page-turner in Caitlyn Nicholas’s Drive Me To Distraction, which features a female race car driver. Marisa starts at about the same point as many non-romance readers:

I didn’t intend to read romance novels for the challenge. Romance novels are not really my thing. Mostly because I have had past bad experience with many a cliche and many a bodice being ripped by some soldier in the 1800s.

and although it probably didn’t convert her to the genre, I think it’s safe to say that there was no bodice ripping and no soldiers involved!

One Little White Lie by Loretta HillEven readers who routinely read romance are finding new ways to enjoy old tropes. In her review of One Little White Lie by Loretta Hill, Jess at The Never Ending Bookshelf wrote:

I loved being given a famous and handsome author as a male protagonist (Henry) and a strong independent female university student completing her PhD (Kate). In a way it was kind of a relief not to have ditzy characters that ‘giggle’ and ‘blush’ and bounce around all the time.

Outback romance — keeping it real

Romance author Jenny Schwartz summed up the appeal of rural romance in her review of Shattered Sky by Helene Young, writing that:

The details of lived experience make for edge of the seat drama.

Lauredhel mentions something similar in her review of The Girl in the Hard Hat by Loretta Hill, whose ‘rural settings aren’t all horses and rivers and pretty bushland; her heroines work in heavy construction in the Pilbara, hard up against a sexist, male-dominated workplace culture, a dangerous workplace, and a harsh environment.’

But Lauredhel also questions the lack of diversity in some of these stories:

This is rural Australia; why is everyone, in the background as well as the foreground, apparently white? Or did I miss something?

Diversity — because romance should be for everyone

Short Soup by Coleen Kwan (published by Escape)I was chuffed to discover that Shannon at Giraffe Days reviewed Short Soup by debut author Coleen Kwan, which features an Asian Australian couple, and that it’s done well without being preachy:

I didn’t get the sense that Kwan had utilised cultural stereotypes; hers is an honest, frank and open depiction of Chinese immigrants and their children, people who have been in the country for decades and are perfectly comfortable there, bridging the line between cultures. “Cultural identity” wasn’t at issue here… [W]hat we get is a very sweet romance between two genuine characters, people who really came alive for me.

Paris Dreaming by Anita HeissBut the most thought-provoking review for the month was from Sue at Whispering Gums, who read Paris Dreaming by Anita Heiss. Sue’s review is worth a visit as she discusses how genre fiction can be a vehicle for activism. She deliberately leaves her reading comfort zone to try Heiss’s chicklit work:

Did I enjoy it? Yes, but not so much as a piece of literature because my reading interests lie elsewhere, but as a work written by a savvy writer with a political purpose. This purpose is not simply to show that young, urban, professional indigenous Australians exist but, as she also said in her address, to create the sort of world she’d like to live in, a world where indigenous Australians are an accepted and respected part of Australian society, not problems and not invisible.

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.