Who Wrote the Book of Love?

The genre’s latest and greatest.

Okay, girls—I know most of you have read at least one. Or at least wondered about what’s in them. You know, those trashy romance novels in the checkout aisle at the grocery store. Harlequin Superromance. Bodice-rippers. Smut books.

Do you prefer “chick lit?” Don’t kid yourselves—there’s a very thin line there, and it’s all about who publishes the book.

The fact of the matter is, there are plenty of us who love this stuff. There’s a reason that something like 40% of all book sales come from the romance genre: everyone needs a mental break once in a while. Personally, I prefer romance novels to TV.

So in lieu of reviewing something that the New York Times has already covered in its books section anyway, I offer a few recommendations for my fellow smut readers. Who actually studies the first week of reading period anyway? Carry one of these as you go sunbathing in the Yard.

Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me (St. Martin’s Paperbacks) 

Ah, the old “someone bet him she wouldn’t go out with him but he really falls in love with her but then she finds out about the bet and is pissed” plot. But in true Crusie style, he doesn’t make the bet—she justthinks he has, and they proceed to run circles around each other for the rest of the book. Combine this with a 400-page attack on the Atkins diet, and the book comes out fresh and funny. Our hero and heroine both have issues with relationships (hell, it wouldn’t be a contemporary romance if they didn’t): Cal is basically a player with a couple of controlling, stiff-upper-lip parents; Min is a tad overweight, and her behavior often veers toward downright bitchiness. Crusie eschews the martyr complex and the wallowing in self-pity that authors always seems to impose on their imperfect heroines, making Min refreshingly realistic—just the average woman unhappy with her appearance.

Granted, this novel isn’t quite as “smut-tacular” as some. Rather than go the usual route and indulge in a marathon of sexual activities starting somewhere in the middle of the book, Bet Me is all build-up. But that build-up is good, and the comedy is a blast, a witty blend of slapstick and banter. Turn off The O.C.—Jennifer Crusie is much funnier than Seth Cohen.

Lisa Kleypas, Secrets of a Summer Night (Avon) 

Ah, Lisa Kleypas: a perfect role model for anyone who wants to throw away a prestigious college diploma in the name of romance. After graduating from Wellesley with a degree in political science, Kleypas sold her first romance novel and apparently never looked back. If you read any Regency romances at all, read Kleypas’s. While I suppose that she technically writes about the Victorian and not the Regency era (my knowledge of British history is pretty abysmal), she taps into a definite subgenre—and blows it wide open. For example, while the typical Regency novel involves some sort of rakish nobleman, Kleypas’s latest, Secrets of a Summer Night, stars a hero who made his fortune in manufacturing—how gauche!—but hangs around at upper-crust parties thrown by the beau monde, apparently just to irritate everyone. This playful new take provides much needed relief from the genre’s creaky old conventions.

Secrets opens a new series centered on four “wallflowers,” girls who, for one reason or another, have little chance to secure an advantageous marriage and therefore lurk on the fringes at all the fashionable balls. The group includes two irreverent, improper American girls, one painfully shy, freckle-faced redhead, and Miss Annabelle Peytonwho has no dowry and thus almost no way to obtain a suitable husband. Naturally, the scandalous Mr. Simon Hunt shows up, and romance ensues. Her snobbery about Simon’s background gets obnoxious pretty quickly, but Kleypas manages to keep her a sympathetic character.

The next book in the series should be even better—the smartass Lillian Bowman is going to snag Kleypas’s popular recurring character, the strait-laced, sometimes priggish Marcus, Lord Westcliff. And while Kleypas tends to refrain from any actual bodice-ripping, she has never shied away from writing a damn hot love scene.

Linda Howard, To Die For (Ballantine Books) 

To Die For is one of Howard’s first paperback-only releases in a while, marking the latest phase in her gradual transformation into a mainstream romance novelist. But rather than just give in to the genre, Howard has made the transition gracefully, writing suspense with sex instead of sex with suspense. This book is something of a departure for her, though. Howard’s heroines are almost always independent and assertive, making business decisions or leading high-powered academic careers; in To Die For, the protagonist is a cheerleader. Not just any cheerleader, either: Blair went to college on a cheerleading scholarship, married the perfect good-looking boy, divorced him, took (some of) his money and his convertible, and opened her own gym. This chick is a hard-edged version of Elle Woods.

As usual, Howard fleshes out the story with a Southern setting and the kind of self-confident yet non-asshole-ish male lead so common in her work that she might as well own the copyright. This time it’s Lt. Wyatt Bloodworth—and she’s not making that last name up—a rugged man who ditched Blair after a few dates, citing her high-maintenance personality. Now, however, he realizes that they’re meant for each other. Hey, what did you expect? These are romance novels we’re talking about. Genre elements aside, the resolution of To Die For‘s murder mystery actually plays out in a rather comical way, which makes this a much lighter read than some of Howard’s recent books.

Sherrilyn Kenyon, Seize the Night (St. Martin’s Paperbacks) 

By recommending Seize the Night, I’m actually recommending the entire seven-book series. Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter epic is an unlikely combination of Greek mythology, the legend of Atlantis, vampire lore, and modern-day New Orleans, presenting a world in which Daimons (vampires) do battle with Dark-Hunters (vampire slayers). The goddess Artemis technically rules over the Dark-Hunters, but she mainly focuses on manipulating their leader, the dreamy 6’8″ Acheron (he prefers Ash). Kenyon draws on a great cast of mythic characters, including biker-gang couple Cupid and Psyche, frat-boy Bacchus, and spoiled, childish, but gradually maturing Artemis. Seize the Night tells the story of Tabitha, a crazy amateur vampire-hunter, and Valerius, a former Roman general. But the real main attractions are the surly immortal bad boys who make up the Dark-Hunters, all of them funny, likeable, and kick-ass—not to mention really, really hot.

It may be romance, but it’s also extremely well crafted sci-fi/fantasy, with a dash of page-turner urgency to boot. In fact, Seize the Night was so suspenseful I nearly found myself skipping over sex scenes to get through the plot.

Almost. Not quite.

Kelly Faircloth ’08 (fairclot@fas) is smut-tacular. Also: rakish.