Jen’s Favorite Books of 2015: Romance

Confession time: I was an anti-romance snob for the majority of my reading life. Like a lot of girls, I grew up not wanting to be mistaken for “that kind of girl.” I.E. I shunned everything feminine in a way to legitimize my own feelings regarding my gender. I complained whenever romance interjected itself in my sci-fi/fantasy books, I ignored the dragon-level hoard of romance books my mom read yearly, and above all else, I made fun of the covers. Oh, those covers. When I worked in a library, I would constantly pull aside the more absurd covers and poke fun at them. Being a teenage nerd also did not help my crisis involving the feminine, as I quickly learned that if you actively shunned all things stereotypically feminine, male nerds would be verrrrrry slightly more likely to take your nerd cred seriously.

“But why tell us you hate romance books in a top romance post?” I hear you ask, “I came here to find out about the kissing books, not listen to how dumb they are!” Well, 2015 marked the year where I finally came to terms with how much I simply enjoy romance! Screw you, haters of all things feminine! I like reading about two people falling in love and having sex! I still have my hangups, sure, and I DNF’d a handful of romance books this year due to overly-rapey men or overly-helpless heroines, but I found a much larger number of romance books that were amazing! And thus… without further ado… COMMENCE WITH THE KISSING!

Romance

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

As mentioned above, I was (and am) a massive nerd. Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Stargate SG-1 were the primary focus of my obsessions and I miiiiiight have hit a classmate in high school with a binder because he claimed Episode 1 of Star Wars was better than the original trilogy. Look, I’m sure we can all come together and agree that despite any rage issues I might have had, my reaction was justified. But the one thing I never got into was fanfiction. Oh sure, I was aware of it (mainly how incorrect it was when written by Harmony shippers) but I never really read it and certainly never wrote it. So color me surprised that one of my favorite romance books this year revolved completely around teenage written fanfiction.

Fangirl is the coming of age story of Cath, and her twin sister Wren as they deal with their first year at college. Cath and Wren have always been inseparable, dressing alike, living in the same room, and being obsessed with the same thing: the Simon Snow Series. It went without saying that upon picking the same school, they would dorm together. Except… then they don’t. Wren sees college as a new beginning, a way to form her own identity outside of her twin sister and her Simon Snow obsession. She cuts her hair, gets a new wardrobe and specifically states on her application form that she is not to dorm with Cath.

Cath does not take this well.

Stubbornly refusing to accept her sister’s life changes, Cath instead buries herself deep within her world of Simon Snow fandom and completing the novel length epic she’s been writing online: Carry On. Simon Snow, by the way, is this world’s “definitely not Harry Potter wink wink.” It follows two wizards, our Harry and Draco if you will, as they go about their magical adventures at a Definitely Not Hogwarts and book 8, the final book in the series, is going to release later in the year. Cath (and formerly Wren) is a massive Simon/Baz shipper and has been writing her own finale for the Simon Snow series wherein Simon and Baz finally admit their true feelings for one another. As she tries to finish her fanfiction epic before the final book is released, Cath has to deal with all sorts of college awkwardness including how she feels about Levi, her roommate’s kinda sorta not boyfriend.

Fangirl isn’t the type of romance novel I mentioned above. There is no hot and steamy sex scenes, no magnificently sculpted hero or heavy bossomed heroine. What it is instead is one of the most realistic college stories I’ve ever read, complete with awkward college crushes and having to navigate your journey towards adulthood. Along with copious amounts of Simon/Baz fanfiction intertwined throughout. If you were at all an awkward nerdy college girl (hello!) and want to read an amazing revisit of those years combined with a sweet romance, Fangirl is the best book I can think of for this task!

Serving Pleasure by Alisha Rai

Imagine one of those hot wing sauce charts at sports bars. If romance novels were hot sauces, Fangirl would be somewhere around “garlic parmesan” whereas Serving Pleasure would be up around say…. super hot mango habanero. That is to say, oh my god this book was the sexiest thing I think I’ve read ever.

::ahem:: I’d like to take this brief moment to break the fourth wall and say, “Hi, Mom! I know you’re reading this because you read everything I write. I also know you read approx 125 romance books last year so explicit content isn’t new for you but it’s still a liiiiittle awkward to be writing about how hot and sexy some of these scenes are. So for my mental well being, I’m just going to pretend that you’re never going to see this while I write about super hot it was for artist Micah intensely going down on Rana. Good? Good.”

Serving Pleasure is book two in Alisha Rai’s Pleasure series, which follows the 3 Malik sisters, Devi, Rana and Leena. The previous book centered around Devi, the baby of the siblings who also is the head chef at their family’s Indian restaurant. She’s short and chubby and adorable and if you’re into polyamory and lots of 3-ways involving super hot twin brothers you should definitely read it. But if that’s not really your bag and you still want well written but super hot romance, Serving Pleasure is literally everything you need.

Serving Pleasure (a title I’m sure high school Jen would have balked at but adult Jen loves) follows the oldest and wildest of the sisters, Rana. Rana is the head hostess at the aforementioned family restaurant and known within her family for her rather long list of men she’s slept with. But she’s drawing closer and closer to her mid-thirties and Mama Malik is getting more and more anxious about her rebellious daughter’s chances at finding a perfectly suitable husband (i.e. a well off Indian doctor). So Rana makes a pledge to stop her one night stands and go on actual dates until she finds Mr. Right. That is, until she notices that the super hot artist neighbor she has has a tendency to leave his house curtains down and not wear many clothes around his house.

From there, Micah (aforementioned hot artist) and Rana form a pact of sorts: they’re both very attracted to one another but both aren’t looking to get emotionally involved. So Rana will pose for Micah professionally as a model for two weeks and beyond that they might have copious amounts of unattached sex. Just to get it out of both of their systems, you know? Micah can’t possibly be the type of man Rana should settle down with and she’ll definitely go back to dating to find Mr. Right once they’re done with their fling (three guesses how well this plan works out).

Beyond the sex scenes, which are amazing in case you were wondering, the thing that really made me fall in love with this book is its characters. Micah isn’t the alpha male domineering Fabio that is assumed to be the hero of romance novels. Rana isn’t the waifish white heroine in need of a man to fulfill her. They are both complex and flawed characters with their own personal hangups they need to work through in order to make themselves happy. Rana is dealing with her mother’s disapproval at her wilder lifestyle and her own feelings of self-doubt and self worth regarding her place in her family. Micah has extreme problems connecting with people not due to a Gaston-esque sense of arrogance, but due to a traumatizing event he went through and the literal physical pain he endured and those close to him were victims of. Rana’s relationship with her sisters and her relationship to Micah beyond the super hot sex they have is what truly carries this book. Everyone feels like a real person with their own hopes and desires. And, you know, Micah is apparently a god when it comes to using his tongue.

Serving Pleasure beyond any measure of a doubt was one of my favorite books I read this year, and my favorite romance novel I read, period. I cannot wait for the 3rd book in the series to revisit the Malik siblings and see what else Alisha Rai has in store (spoilers: amazing characters being interesting and behaving like real people. Potentially with orgies.)

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

(As I write this, I now realize that I wedged Serving Pleasure between two fairly mild books when it comes to sex and romance. Imagine Fangirl and The Wrath and the Dawn are two pieces of very high quality artisan bread housing a very spicy piece of chicken. Also in hindsight, I maybe should have not written this post directly during lunchtime.)

I wrote a full review of The Wrath and the Dawn directly after reading it, so if you want a more in depth and less food related review, I would recommend checking that one out. However, The Wrath and the Dawn was magical book in every sense of the word. It felt like a spell had been cast over me while I read it, making me fall in love with these characters and the setting and the mythology so entirely that I didn’t even realize what had happened until the book was over.

The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights the myth wherein a cruel prince takes a new bride every evening and murders her at dawn, until one woman tricks him into letting her live by telling him a fascinating tale and leaving him hanging in anticipation just as the sun rises. Like Fangirl and Serving Pleasure, the characters in this book are marvelous and rich. Renee Ahdieh takes the one note characters from mythology and fleshes them out into multi-faceted and complex people with their own motivations and hopes and dreams. The relationship between boy-king Khalid and his new bride Sharazad evolves throughout the entire book, with me hating and fearing him upon it’s start and feeling sympathetic and scared for their relationship by the end. If you enjoy YA, Middle Eastern Mythology and a good fantasy romance, you really should read The Wrath and the Dawn and then join me in eager anticipation for book 2 I NEED IT, YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND I HAVE TO KNOW HOW THE STORY ENDS.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, classic collection of Middle Eastern folktales from days of old. Sadly, I never read A Thousand and One Nights, although I’m much more inclined to after reading this book. But even without having read the original work this book is inspired by, the premise was one that was familiar to me due to the ever-constant presence of stories within our world.

The land of Khorasan is under the rule of the mad boy-king Khalid, who strikes a blow at the hearts of his people every sunrise. For months now, the cruel caliph has taken for himself a new bride, a new young girl to wed, only to have her strangled to death with a silk cord come the dawn. When her best friend becomes Khalid’s newest victim, 16 year old Sharazad vows vengeance on the boy-king, making herself his next bride and using her skill at weaving stories to entice him and keep herself alive for one more day, hoping to find a way to destroy Khalid’s grip of fear on her people once and for all.

I remember when I was little and first heard the premise of A Thousand and One Nights and being amazed that a young girl telling stories could soften the heart of such a cruel man. How could only words and the promise of hearing what happens next in the story be enough to prevent her death? Thinking about it now, isn’t that what all good stories do? They weave a magical world that doesn’t tangibly exist and yet keep the reader entranced and enthralled and wanting more even when the story is finished. The Wrath and the Dawn did precisely that for me. The word I best can use to describe it is “magical” even though actual magic are only hinted at at best. But the book entranced me, pulled me in and caught me in its spell until it was over. And just like Scheherazade in the original tale, it left me before the story was finished, but with the promise that more will come.

The characters of The Wrath and the Dawn are far more complex than their folklore counterparts. Sharazad is not simply a weaver a words, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She holds her own in a world that wants to chain and silence her. She refuses to be a quiet little pet of a seemingly mad king and demands to be heard and valued equally. Khalid is not just a single-minded cruel boy, caring so little for the wives he’s killed. There’s suffering behind his callous exterior, reasons for the deaths, pain and sadness and remorse even while he continues to destroy lives. There’s layers to him to understand, even while his tendency for violence horrifies and disgusts. Similarly, the advisors and servants within the palace each have their own stories, their own wants and needs outside of our main characters which add a richness to the story. Even the family Sharazad leaves behind is not a forgotten sidenote in her life. As her understanding of Khalid grows, her family rears their heads, reminding her of what she has sacrificed to be in this position, scorning her for feeling any sympathy for the king who murdered so many.

I will say not everything worked perfectly in this book. Although I appreciated Sharazad’s journey of emotions as her time with Khalid grew, I found the jumps back to Tariq and her family a bit confusing to follow. Once the storylines converged more, things fell more into place but whenever we’d cut back to them, I’d find myself growing restless as I cared much more about Sharazad and her journey than I did anything Tariq was planning. Although I understand and appreciate the importance he serves in Sharazad’s backstory, I found him more annoying than anything else, a smaller player in a much larger story that he didn’t fully understand.

I loved this book, although I didn’t realize how much until it was over and the story was not yet done. I wouldn’t use the word cliffhanger to describe the ending, for there wasn’t any singular event cut short. The story of Sharazad simply wasn’t done yet. But the spell had already been cast and there was nothing I could do but wait until the Renee Ahdieh came back to me with more magical words to weave and a promise of a conclusion to the story.