Since I’ve been on a serious romance kick lately, I thought it would be fun to do some bite sized reviews of the books I’ve practically devoured this month (my definition of ‘bite sized’ may vary from review to review). Suffice to say it’s been a damn good January for me and the genre.
I’m not a fan of New Adult books. The genre has just never clicked with me in a way I find to be interesting, creatively satisfying or especially romantic due to some of the bigger name authors in the burgeoning field. I also tend to avoid billionaire romantic heroes like the plague. Obscene displays of wealth literally disgust me, particularly during these days of economic strife. The billionaire hero meets impoverished heroine trope can so easily sink to a level of uncomfortable infantilisation brought on by the rich figure freely spending dizzying amounts of money on their beloved. The power dynamics are off because the heroine never truly feels on the same level as the one with all the cash, especially when he’s funding her rent, education, transport, and so on (or in the especially creepy example in that book we won’t name, buying the actual company the heroine works at). It takes serious talent to take the well-worn trope of the billionaire hero and not only make me believe it but win me over to the side of the privileged.
Fortunately, Courtney Milan has those skills in spades.
The billionaire in Trade Me is Blake Reynolds, tech genius and heir to an Apple-style mega corporation known for its charismatic product announcements the likes of which leave Tim Cook wistful. While in a class, he makes some off-handed comments about being poor, he doesn’t expect his classmate Tina Chen to lose her cool and call him out on his complete ignorance on the true pain of poverty. This is where Milan’s true strengths lie – Trade Me offers one of the more cutting and incisive explorations of being poor I’ve ever read in the romance genre, and she does so with an often merciless take-down of the privileged. Blake and his father may work hard for their billions, but it’s never comparable to Tina’s daily struggle over whether to buy food or send $10 back to her family for their heating bill.
Refreshingly, Blake is a hero free of arrogance and one plagued with real problems, which Milan handles with her usual deft hand. He may be blind to the struggles of others who don’t have literally billions in the bank but he’s also eager to learn. Tina is whip-smart and often hugely frustrated with her situation, feeling burdened with the responsibility of supporting her family as she scrambles for a few extra dollars for rice. Some of her problems can be eased with money but thankfully there are no scenes where Blake shoves a few hundred dollar bills at her to solve the problem. His wealth leaves her uncomfortable and when she trades positions with Blake, her biggest splurge is to buy melons.
Milan’s first contemporary work comes with the same depth of research, attention to detail and tight structuring that can be found in her historical romances. The emotional beats land time and time again, although the ending is somewhat underwhelming (it fits with the more soap-opera tone often found in NA but lacks the precision and satisfaction of the rest of the story). The central conflict is not a pot-boiler, but the various entangled relationships of the story make up for that, particularly with the scenes involving their respective families. There’s an authenticity to Milan’s character work that keeps the story moving forward and across the balance between fluff and grit, although the tone here is somewhat inconsistent and a little lacking in the author’s usual confidence. Still, there’s much to recommend here, especially or billionaire sceptics looking for a great trope subversion. The planned sequel, featuring Tina’s transgender best friend, promises to be an instant-buy.
This is the kind of book that can only be described as deliciously filthy.
Akira Mori is a billionaire businesswoman (that subversion alone was reason to buy this book) with a kinky reputation, a fraught family history and a former step-brother who has always intrigued and infuriated her in equal measure. The incredibly handsome and buttoned-up Jacob Campbell has always seemingly disapproved of her wild lifestyle, although in reality his fascination with her runs deep to his bones.
Wow, this book was hot. It’s been a while since a romance of any kind had me genuinely flustered (at the risk of too much information here!) but Rai’s unashamedly sexually voracious heroine is just what the doctor ordered. I’m a sucker for the Beatrice-and-Benedick style relationship dynamic, and Akira and Jacob’s sharp-as-a-tack jibes come with all the passion and wit expected, with some touching emotional moments too. Family is a big theme of the novel, from Jacob’s parental relationship with his younger sister to Akira’s lack of closure over the death of her emotionally abusive mother. Economic, cultural, societal and emotional differences divide and unite the pair, and Jacob’s sexual exploration through his more adventurous lover Akira offers a refreshing change of pace.
This is not a book for lovers of monogamy in their romance. Akira likes sex with men and women, often at the same time and often while others watch, and invites Jacob into her world at a pace and level of security that’s right for him. There’s no pressure or sneering from either person, and they are always in control of the situation. It’s a remarkably sex and kink-positive read that puts empowerment at the forefront of the story, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s extremely hot!
Alisha Rai has firmly established herself as one to watch with A Gentleman in the Street.
Julie James is my favourite contemporary romance author. Her dialogue alone is reason to buy her work in bulk in case of emergencies. The third book in her FBI/US Attorney series carries the well-loved hallmarks of a great James novel, although it falls short of its predecessors.
Kyle Rhodes was first introduced to readers in the previous book, A Lot Like Love, as the brother of protagonist Jordan, during his brief incarceration for crashing Twitter. Now out of prison and planning his crime-free future, he’s called back by the District Attorney’s office to testify, only to meet with Rylann Pierce, with whom he had an all too-short encounter 9 years ago.
Unlike the other books in the series, About That Night is far less driven by the goings-on of the FBI and DA offices, possibly because Kyle is not part of either world in a professional capacity like previous heroes. As such, the plot feels stretched and lacking in the usual action expected. Kyle’s involvement in testifying wraps up pretty quickly and a hinted dramatic development never takes place. Instead, the focus is on Rylann and Kyle’s burgeoning relationship and some well-developed characterisation, although the trademark law talk is still there. James may have done more to make the law seem like a cool occupation than Elle Woods. It’s not James’s best but it’s witty, sexy, smart and a welcome addition to what may be my favourite romance series.