Elizabeth: Not a Romance in Sight

With the end of 2020 came the traditional surge of “Top Books” lists.  The first I encountered was was the New York Times “Top 10 Best Books of 2020,” in which the editors of The Times Book Review chose the best fiction and nonfiction titles of 2020.  Other than Barack Obama’s memoir (which had only come out near the end of the year), I had heard of none of the titles and, after reading the blurbs, I’m unlikely to investigate any of them further.  I’m guessing I am not the target audience of those book review editors.

No surprise – there was not a romance novel in sight on the list.

Next up was the “100 Notable Books of 2020” also by the editors of The New York Times Book Review.  I figured a list of 100 titles would cover a broader range of books.  My mistake.  After reading through it, I mentally renamed this list “98 books I’ve never heard of.”

There was one whole romance title on the list — Courtney Milan’s The Duke Who Didn’t — which also made the Washington Posts’ Best romance novels of 2020

The Washington Posts’ list, written by Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, was closer to what I was looking for.  There were both books I’d heard of and books I’d read on it.  I especially liked the framing of the list:

“In addition to comfy pants and my dishwasher, reading romance got me through 2020. These stories will get you through the holidays and the last nine decades of 2020. Here’s to a brighter 2021 for all of us.”

During these crazy pandemic times, the books on Wendell’s list have definite appeal.  On the other hand, none of the books on the New York Times lists made me think “oh, this is a great book to read to distract me from the angst in the world.”

Another good list was Bookriot’s Comforting Books for Hard Times: Soothing Reads in Every Genre.  As the title promised, there were a wide range of books, including another Courtney Milan title, Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure, as well as Andrew Sean Greer’s book Less, which I read, enjoyed, and mentioned before on this blog.

“These books have gotten me through personal crisis before, and they’re getting me through this one. They are not completely without danger or death of any kind, but they make me laugh out loud, transport and distract me, and remind me that kindness hope, and humor abound among humans.”

I stopped Googling for lists after perusing “Finding Comfort in the Classics” which claimed to offer “time-tested books that offer escape from the present moment”, but included things like Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and a collection of essays by George Orwell.  E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web was on the list, so it wasn’t a complete loss, but few of the other titles made me think, “oh, reading this will be a great way to distract me (in a good way) from the pandemic.”

It made me wonder who decides on these lists and what kind of criteria do they use?  We’ve heard/seen time after time about the popularity of romances in the marketplace.  They are consistent moneymakers–even through periods of recession/depression–and can almost be guaranteed to leave you feeling happy by the ending.  Since books often seem to hit best-seller lists they instant they are published (or even before), when the buying public has had little chance to weigh in, I have to wonder if the lists (especially those that have a “literary” bent) are, in some cases, more like popularity contests, perhaps like selecting prom king and queen, with the publishers and marketing folks lobbying for their candidates.

My own personal comfort read lists contains:

  • Anything by Jennifer Crusie (except maybe Sizzle)
  • Anything by Loretta Chase
  • Anything by Georgette Heyer (except Penhallow)
  • Ngaio Marsh Mysteries
  • Selected Louise Penny Mysteries

I have a whole pile of new books to read, once my comfort-reading phase passes, but for right now, I’m enjoying spending time with favorite characters, communities, and authors.  And if none of the titles are on anyone else’s list, well, I’m okay with that.

So, how about you?  Are you comfort reading or reaching out for something new?

10 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Not a Romance in Sight

  1. Definitely for comfort. Fortunately, I have most of Ilona Andrew’s canon still to read and I recently discovered the Stariel series thanks to Eight Lady Jilly.

    Also, K.F. Breene’s new Midlife Magic series is hilarious and adventurous and has a mature protagonist. She has a new one coming out this month and I can’t wait. 🙂

  2. I found it very hard to read during last year (we spent a lot of the time in lockdown in Melbourne). I’ve finally realised that trying to read challenging science fiction and fantasy isn’t what I need, and for the last month I’ve been ripping through lots of free romances on Amazon Prime. Oh, and I house-sat for my daughter and binged Bridgerton 🙂

    I’m currently reading How To Be Second Best by Jessica Dettmann, as a bit of a change from Regency romances. Highly recommended – it’s lovely to read a novel that’s unapologetically Australian. American novels don’t explain all the cultural and food references, so why should Australian novels? Even if you don’t understand a few of the terms, it’s not hard to Google. Oh, and Emma is just the sort of person I can imagine bonding with over a latte and some cake.

    • Your “unapologetically Australian” book sounds appealing; I’ll have to check it out. I’m with you on finding it hard to read during the last year. I’m hoping 2021 will be better and allow me to make some inroads on my to-be-read pile.

  3. I’ve been trying a few new authors recently, using a kind of Amazon reverse lookup technique 😉 .

    I run an Amazon auto-ad on my book The Seeds of Power. That means Amazon chooses where to show it–if it thinks readers of a particular title might enjoy my writing, and if who knows what other elements of its algorithm are satisfied. After the fact, I can run a report that shows the books Amazon chose, and the ones that earned clicks from potential readers. I’ve been looking up those books and have found about half a dozen really interesting looking authors to try (reviews to follow if I find some good ones). It’s an unexpected side benefit of the ad campaign, and it’s working a lot better for me than the suggestions I get in my daily Amazon marketing newsletter.

    My best find lately, though, has been AJ Lancaster’s Stariel books, and I found those via the comments in Jenny Crusie’s Good Book Thursday blog posts. I read all three books in a week and can’t wait for the fourth and final book in the series.

    • Jilly, what a clever way to combine your marketing and your book searching. I hope the potential authors you’ve identify turn out to be winners. As for Jenny’s Good Book Thursday blog posts, I have found those to be a good source of new-to-me authors too.

  4. I’m definitely reading for comfort, too, and I’m finding new authors/books rather heavy going for the most part. (Thanks to everyone who’s suggested things I might like!) I’d go with your list of Loretta Chase (“Ten Things I Hate about the Duke” is on sale today for $1.99, and “Miss Wonderful” is $2.99), Jenny, Georgette Heyer, and Ngaio Marsh, although I can take or leave Louise Penny, but those newspaper lists! What a bunch of snobs they are, especially the NYT. And—as an Amazon Prime member, I can get a free book every month from a list that Amazon is promoting. Usually there’s about 10 books on the list, one of them a children’s book, and so far, in the last couple of years, I’ve downloaded one book, which I have yet to read. I thought it was marginal at the time, and I continue to think that, but maybe one day…. Talk about doom and gloom, thy name is Amazon promotions.

    • Kay, I get those Amazon free books too, but for the last several months there hasn’t been anything I even considered choosing. Other than the children’s book, the rest have all seemed to thriller/horror/angsty for me. I need a new list — “Books that will make you happy when you read them.” If I want thriller/horror/angst, I can just watch the news.

  5. Pingback: Kay: The End Is Nigh – Eight Ladies Writing

  6. Genre is a useful classification, but I think the future of book-selling is going to belong to AO3-like tags. Which could include “Books that make you happy when you read them.” Or in my case, “Friendly community building.” I’ve seen some mighty weird tags, but someone is on the look-out for those specifics in the books they read, so OK.

    There seems to be so much snobbery in the book world. I personally look down on dystopia, and manipulative “poor little me” stories — although I recognize that some people LOVE those things and look down on my tastes. Not only that, but there are a few dystopic stories and “poor little me” stories that ring my bell, so I can’t really be a snob about it.

    Some people, though, just don’t seem to see their own snobbery. Book reviewers at fancy-pants literary genre-type establishments, for example.

    I think Jenny’s model with Good Book Thursday is an excellent one. People follow her blog because they like her work; they form a community of people with at least a few overlapping Venn circles of interest. Maybe not everything is to Book Searcher A’s taste, but over the course of a few Thursdays, there’s sure to be something.

    It goes back to the fact that writers are not competing with each other because no writer can write faster than a reader can read. It’s in their interest to remind the readers that this subgenre (tag-genre?) exists, and there IS stuff out there.

    I have been miserable about reading this year, and have had my dry spells last year where nothing seemed good. I loved the New Journalism-style plague books (Defoe, who I have raved about constantly, in particular), and I think my favorite book I read last year was Mexican Gothic. There was a touch of romance, an undercurrent of goth gloom, a basic feeling that “this is NOT what life should be or is — we need to do better”, and a very biological and logical yet horrifying “villain” moving the plot.

    I’ve got five or six books that I want to read on my Kindle, but Twitter drama has sucked away my will to read anything less fast-paced and punchy. Modern day “my stories” like soap operas, if you will.

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