Love in Proof: A Year of Reading Romance Series

Within science lies the possibility of discovering a concrete truth, of a shared understanding of certainty. There is no he said, she said. There are no opposing sides of the story wherein flawed facts and hidden agendas diverge into disagreement and disaffection. Any differences concerning the theory are eventually worked out via experiment, observation, repeated trial and error. Eventually, logic, evidence and proof prevail, even if it takes years and years to work out the contradictions or conundrums. Tests are created and themselves tested under different conditions and circumstances until all variables are eliminated and the results reached become incontrovertible.

In the science of romance novels, the central theory is that love always triumphs over hate, greed, corruption, envy, selfishness and a whole plethora of other negative human impulses. Love heals, love soothes, love strengthens us, brings us together, staves off loneliness and pain, makes us good. Usually—during a normal year in which opinions and feelings are not considered facts—a stand-alone well-written, well-crafted romance convinces and satisfies all on its own. This past year though, I needed more. I’d lost important-to-me people at the end of 2015, and increasingly as 2016 progressed month by month, and people believed anything–ANYTHING–much of my faith in America’s goodness was shaken (I’ve often been cynical about politics, but rarely about people).

So for me, to stay grounded, 2016 became a year spent reading series. In romance series, even the weaker books hold their draw because, in spite of sometimes less interesting characters or less balanced plots, the stories test and complete some larger claim that starts in the first book: that everyone can find love. Reading a full, long series creates a sense of wholeness and completion for this reader, especially in a real world that feels upended and uncertain. Series don’t just offer readers one happy-ever-after couple, they give us three, or six, or twelve individual pieces of the jigsaw puzzle sliding neatly into place, interlocking to create a perfect world of love’s reach and power. No one gets left out or ignored. It’s a beautiful version of what reality could be, one that offers connection if we just reach for it, risk it.

If every sibling in a large fictional family gets their happy-ever-after, then the world created is a better place. If even the bitter, angry cousin’s heart is softened by love and acceptance, then everyone can be brought to the light, right? Everyone can be redeemed with love. No one needs to suffer if they accept the love the universe has for them. The tension in a romance depends on this resistance and ultimate capitulation to the promise of love. In a romance series, the message of one book is amplified, confirmed, reconfirmed over and over like scientific trial and error. Sure, the sister got her HEA, but what about the wild brother? Look, the next book tells his journey to an HEA! Like the crime and detective novel series in which the lead protagonist solves mystery after mystery building a world in which crimes are always solved, the repeated coupling of different individuals into marriages and long term relationships in a romance series sets up a preponderance of evidence that loneliness and isolation will eventually be replaced with the rewarding, interconnected bonds of love.

I’ve been reading series for years, but this year, only a small portion of my reading consisted of stand-a-lone novels. Looking over my Goodreads list, I clearly gravitated towards series. I started new ones, read the backlists of older ones, finished others I’d started in 2014 or 2015. Even as I write this, I’m midpoint in a couple of new series that will carry me forward into 2017.

Series have always hooked me. Give me a family of five siblings, or a trio of loner cousins, or a group of friends turned loyal self-made family for life, and I’ll want to read about how each finds love. If the author can seduce me into one story, I’ll commit to the whole set, with rare exceptions. Below, I’ve loosely grouped the series I’ve read, or continue to read, in 2016, and what has compelled me to stick with them.

(A, B, C, D, E, F—an alphabetical list, not a grade.)

A is for Awesome Athletes

Although I don’t watch much televised sports these days, I was once a devoted hockey fan. Plus, athletes represent a form of physical perfection that doesn’t exist for 90% of the population. Like most movie-watching audiences, I like my actors to be attractive, and I appreciate when a book’s hero is particularly fit. Also, playing sports reminds us that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The important thing is to keep playing. These guys persevere and overcome setbacks with a kind of doggedness one can’t help but admire, so if I’m looking for a little perseverance in the face of defeat, I pick up a sports-related story.

  1. Kristen Callihan’s Game On Series—Frankly, I’m not a big fan of NA. I prefer third person narration over first person narration 95% of the time. The writer really has to nail characterization and those characters must be ruthlessly honest with themselves for it to work. But this. This. This series. Fantastic. Go read it if you haven’t. Goodreads lists two more books as yet unpublished. I mind-will Callihan to write them NOW.
  2. Lynda Aicher Power Play Series—After stumbling across Callihan’s series, I wanted more athletes. I’d read other Aicher stories and mostly enjoyed them, so I picked her sports series up. I loved it. Because the whole series was published, and only had three books, I read them all within a week. Very satisfying.
  3. Jaci Burton’s Play-by-Play Series—I’m still working through these (in my defense, there are a lot of them, and I’ve been reading them out of order). They vary a bit in their ability to satisfy me. Burton is a highly competent writer, but sometimes her writing comes across a little bit paint-by-number perfect, i.e. stiff. Though the books aren’t messy enough to tap into my deep psyche, they do ground themselves in the pro sports world in a satisfying way and her heroines are gutsy and strong.

B is for Best Bad Boys

When I read pompous articles about how romance fantasies teach women to see love and relationships through rose-colored glasses, I get cranky. Clearly, these clueless critics have never studied Aristotle nor understand the term or value of literary catharsis. Like most women, I’ve sampled the reality of the bad boyfriend in my 20s and moved on, despite reading romance novels. In fact, romance novels safely indulge my secret desire to love a dangerous man. It certainly doesn’t mean I want to be in a real relationship with a bad boy. Still, ever since I fell for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights at age 17, bad boys with their intense, violent emotions have always enthralled my imagination. Just like men like to read spy and war novels and imagine living dangerously without actually risking their real lives, I like to read love stories with dangerous lovers. After finishing one of these books, I cuddle up on the couch with my intelligent and protective beta good-boy husband. Favorite bad boy books this year:

  1. Tami Hoag’s Lucky’s Lady (Doucet series)—This title is her last romance before she moved into writing mystery, so I haven’t read the rest of the series, but it was my favorite bad boy book of the year because one, bad boy Lucky, and two, it’s set in a top fantasy location for me, the dangerous swamps of Louisiana. I like my danger doubled. A bad boy hero and poisonous snakes? Sign me up.
  2. Sophie Jordan’s Devils Rock series—I rated both the first and second prison-based novels a damned happy five stars. Naturally, I’ve pre-ordered the third and anticipate its release with bated breath. Just 37 days away…and no one has to worry if I’ll be writing inmates letters in real life. No. Just no.
  3. Julianna Keyes’ Time Served–Gritty, dark, emotional stories and characters…somehow without being angsty. I’m not good with angsty. Got enough angst to deal with in the real world. Love her writing and her characters. This third book was just as good as the first two, in a loosely linked series.
  4. Joanna Wylde’s Reapers MC series—I can’t imagine passing up one of these biker antiheroes’ stories. I read the first novel four times in one week in 2013, and I reread it again in 2014 and 2015 (definitely triggering something in my deep psyche). I pre-order them as soon as they become available. I’ve also read the offshoot Silver Valley book too. Every book rates a 4 or a 5.
  5. Megan Crane’s Devil’s Keepers MC series and her Edge post-apocalyptic series both deliver delicious bad boys aplenty. I got turned onto her writing after reading a multi-author bad boy biker series, Deacons of Bourbon Street, which I loved as well. No surprise that Devil’s Keepers and Deacons are both set in Louisiana. Did I mention before that I LOVE the geographical setting of the deep South, the swamps and New Orleans? My education in feminist literature made me a passionate reader of Kate Chopin. The Awakening and her women-empowering short stories like “The Storm” are regular rereads for me. I also watched Gone with the Wind over and over as a child. (See my take on the Edge books under the letter F.)
  6. One last novel deserves mention on the light side of the MC spectrum: Show Me the Honey by Cathryn Cade thoroughly entertained and pleased me. The hero is a biker, but, a relatively nice one. Menage is the trope in the second book, not a favorite of mine, but I’ll probably read it in 2017.

C is for Classic Titled Gents

While it’s harder to seek nostalgia in one’s fiction during a year in which America seems to be drowning in a sticky, sour, unpleasant batch of it, these stories reinforce the idea that love prevails, no matter the external, limiting conditions of a highly stratified society. It’s strangely reassuring that even if society regresses…we’ll still have love.

  1. Mary Balogh’s Bedwyn Saga series—This set of books was fantastic and I can’t believe I didn’t read them sooner. Balogh is a master of characterization, as are other favorite historical writers like Jeffries and Kleypas, noted below. I gave four of the six stories a solid five stars. So much wonderful.
  2. Lisa Kleypas’ The Ravenels series signals her return to historical romance. Her other historical series remain some of my favorites and I periodically reread her Wallflowers series. I’ve read the first two novels in this new spin-off series and rated them five stars each, and can’t wait to read book three. Some of my friends like her contemporaries, but I think her best work and characters are set in the past.
  3. Sabrina Jeffries’ Sinful Suitors series—Another master of characterization and carefully, cleverly plotted romances, Jeffries never seems to put out a dud. This series stands strong with the rest of her work.
  4. Lorraine Heath’s The Hellions of Havisham series—I’ve just finished the first novel, and starting the second today after I finishing writing and plotting a novella. The third is just out too, so I’ll probably be reading this series into 2017. The first book was satisfying with strong characterization.
  5. Five is for the series I didn’t get to, but are highly rated and at the top of my TBR list—Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series and Joanna Shupe’s The Knickerbocker Club. I have all the books downloaded onto my Kindle from Amazon except for the last of each book in the series. Soon, soon.

D is for Deserving Good Boys

When the world seems to be waxing blindly over the idea of returning to the gender rigid 1950s, we need stories about level-headed, intelligent men to help us fight against the backlash on women’s equality. While there are plenty of a-hole modern protagonists in contemporary romance fiction who treat women as objects, there’s an equal and reassuring number of decent, liberated protagonists looking for smart, capable and kind partners as their future wives. Maybe even partners who makes more money than they do. Or tough female bosses who take charge. Shocker! If you want to live in the current century of fiction, you’ll go for these books in which men can still be utterly masculine and the women sensually feminine, even with their university degrees, higher incomes, and important careers. No weak egos on display here.

  1. Christina Lauren’s Beautiful Bastard and Wild Seasons series—Not much to say about these two popular, contemporary series, except, if you haven’t read them, WHAT? Get to it. Now. Wonderful characters and charming plots.
  2. Kate Meader’s Hot in Chicago series—Firefighters. Enough said, right? Stories based on a group of guys who were foster brothers? No one deserves a HEA more than a foster kid. No one. Another strength of this series is its gender diversity, including a strong female firefighter and a homosexual firefighter, in addition to the regular hetero guys.
  3. Shannon Stacey’s Boston Fire series—Okay. I like firefighters. What can I say? They rush into burning buildings when others are rushing out. They are trained to save lives. Firefighter is just a synonym for hero. The added benefit—set in Boston. After New Orleans, this city is my total catnip for American story locations. If I could live long enough, I’d add at least a year of life in the Big Easy and another in Beantown.
  4. Lauren Layne’s New York’s Finest series, and her The Wedding Belles series, her Sex, Love and Stiletto series, and her Oxford series—The first pairs nicely with Meader’s and Stacey’s firefighter series, as it focuses on cops, the other modern urban hero. The other three series center around sharp, intelligent journalists and, obviously, wedding planners. Once you’ve run compulsively through Christina Lauren’s books, Layne’s backlist is the next stop. With good writing, unique storylines, she makes sure all her characters get their liberated HEAs.
  5. Anne Calhoun’s Alpha Ops series—In addition to cops and firefighters, I also read stories starring heroic soldiers. Calhoun writes strong, satisfying love stories. She also writes great sex scenes. So if you’re looking from something a little darker, a little sexier, without reducing the female characters to a set of tits and long legs, Calhoun’s your author.

E is for Excellent Small Town Romances

Small town romances are generally nostalgic, but not these. There’s a strong, contemporary, challenging edge to these series that make their relevance extend beyond old-fashioned ideals. Even people living out of the limelight in quiet communities can be smart, sharp-witted, tolerant and forward-thinking. These series will challenge anyone’s stereotypes about small town inhabitants.

  1. Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers series—Beards and more beards. Gosh, who’d have thought a series set in backwoods Tennessee about a family of six fierce, hairy-faced brothers would rise to such excellent escapism? Reid delivers characters who are warm, unique and loveable. The only problem with this series is that the first three books have been released and now I’m waiting for the rest. Impatiently. Gimme Gimme Gimme.
  2. Victoria Dahls’ Jackson, Jackson Girls Night Out and Tumble Creek series—These books have been out for a couple of years, and I don’t know why I was late discovering them. They are like potato chips to my endless craving for salty food. Light, but not too light, they deliver crisp characterization and believable relationships of true love.
  3. Olivia Dade’s Lovestruck Librarians series—Good girl librarians gone rogue? Talk about catnip. Not as strong as some of the other series on the 2016 reading list, nonetheless, I’ve pre-ordered the next book. So there’s that. Guess I like quirky librarians, multi-cultural casts and quaint locations.
  4. Jaci Burton’s Hope series—I actually like this series better than the Play-by-Play books. The setting is authentic and well-drawn. Recommended.

F is for Fantastic Futuristic Stories

I’ve had some of my serious ideals about life on this Earth punctured and deflated during the past year. Sometimes, I’d happily escape into the universe somewhere else to start up a new civilization. I started this post talking about science and its drive to understand the truths of the universe—truths based on facts not feelings. I conclude by looking at science fiction romances that helped me escape the online vitriol that razed a lot of what was once good will. Some of the series are gritty (The Edge) and others are a bit silly (Ice Planet Barbarians), but I enjoyed them all.

  1. Megan Crane’s The Edge Series—Crane’s anti-heroes are the ultimate bad boys of the post-apocalyptic earth. Essentially a cross between ancient Vikings, modern gangsters and alpha elite warriors, these guys make their own rules about sex, male/female relationships and war. And they’re smart. The first two books in the series were amazing, and I have the third waiting at the top of my TBR stack.
  2. Anna Hackett’s Phoenix Adventures series—I’m not very far into this series yet, but it has a lot of stories and I plan to work my way through them all. I’ve read other books by Hackett and she’s a great SFR writer. I loved the energy of Among Galactic Ruins. If you like the concept of action adventure in a futuristic, alien setting, this is one of the series to start. At the time of writing this 2016 reading wrap-up, the first book, Among Galactic Ruins has been perma-free on Amazon.
  3. Lolita Lopez’s Grabbed series—This set of stories is an older SFR erotic series and I’m afraid I might not get to read the whole set, a case of series interruptus. These are books that were published with a now defunct publisher, and while the first three have been rereleased by the author, there’s no sign of the others appearing. I’ve stalked the web for information about the out-of-publication titles, but can’t find much. Insert sad face.
  4. Ruby Dixon’s Ice Planet Barbarians series—I consumed the first books in this series last year, and slowed down with them in 2016, when several of the released stories were more about life after the romance rather than stories about a new romance. I tend to avoid continuations of stories that don’t include a new couple falling in love. After all, that’s my expectation—that they will stay in love, no further evidence needed. Maybe some readers like the follow-up proof though, so I still recommend the series as a whole.
  5. Juniper Leigh’s Alien Survivor series only released the first book in 2016, but I loved it. Waiting for more.

Perhaps you too felt the need to string together multiple books in multiple plots of multiple HEAs to survive the year? I anticipate that 2017 is going to require even more extended series reading. Send me a message if you have a series that’s a must-read. I’m always looking for more HEAs.

Wishing you Happy Reading in 2017!

Selene

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