Five tips for choosing a great romance novel

I’m a romance novel addict. Seriously. I bought my first romance novel when I was about 14, and I still spend anywhere from $8 to $20 a month on this guilty pleasure. Don’t do the math. It’s a lot of books.

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I’ll be the first to admit that there tends to be a formula to romance novels, and a finite number of plots that seem work in the format. I go in with my eyes open when I buy a book. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to enjoy the read. So over the year’s I’ve developed a series of fool-proof (for me anyway) rules for picking a great romance novel.

1. If the character names make you roll your eyes when you’re reading the back cover, it’s not going to be a good read.

I don’t care what else is going on with the book, I’m not getting past chapter three if I can’t take the character names seriously. (Rhett and Tawney anyone?)

2. If the characters are reunited lovers, or if either of them has a kid, put the book down.

Old relationships and kids require more of the back story to be explained and that pulls focus from the main story. Girl meets boy, mayhem and/or misunderstandings ensue, girl and boy realize they are in love – it works because it’s simple.

3. If any of the characters has supernatural powers, read at your own risk.

Everything about a romance novel requires the reader to suspend belief for 150-350 pages. (They fell madly in love and are getting married after just six days? Sure, I buy that.) Introducing ghosts, ESP, etc. just makes it tougher to take the story seriously.

4. If it’s a cop/(potential) victim/witness, boss/assistant, or cowboy/cook/housekeeper story – buy it, it’s going to be good (assuming all other rules hold).

I have no idea why stories about these three particular pairings always seem to work, but my experience says they do.

5. Modern is better – although apparently exceptions can be made for ancient Scotland.

I stand by tips one through four, but I’ll admit this one is more personal preference (if Victorian-era damsels in distress work for you, go nuts). That said, nailing the dialogue, setting and cultural ticks of another era can be tough. I’m not saying it can’t be done (the Outlander series is wildly popular, and Monica McCarthy does it extremely well in her highland guard series), but when it’s done poorly it’s distracting. Best to stick with a modern setting.



Five tips for picking a great book club book

Some book clubs pick all their books at the start of the year, so the group knows what they are reading next and a certain amount of planning can happen.

That is not my book club. I love that it’s not, because it means that at the end of each meeting there’s this moment where someone says: “So what are we reading next?” And it sparks a whole new kind of book discussion – around what books we’ve heard good things about, what books have been sitting on our shelves for too long, and what strange and interesting books we’d be interested in checking out.

But picking a good book club book isn’t as simple as it sounds! So here are my five tips for picking a great book club book.

1. Know your readers.
If 90 per cent of the books your club chooses have a movie poster cover or are sold next to the check out in the grocery store, picking something recommended by your friend who’s completing his/her doctorate in French Literature probably isn’t a good idea. Choosing something that’s outside your club’s comfort zone is always good because it tends to result in some great discussion, but if you want people to actually read the book, stay in your club’s ballpark.

2. Avoid new releases.
If your club is filled primarily with people using e-readers, this may not be as much of an issue, but for old-school hard copy book readers, new releases are a challenge. For the book buyers in the group, new releases usually mean hard covers – higher cost, heavier to carry. For the book borrowers, they usually mean more time on the library waiting list.

3. Length matters.
I’m all for curling up in bed with a mammoth novel, especially if it’s an author I love. But for book club purposes, the length of the book is inversely proportional to the number of people who will read the whole thing. Stay below about 450 pages if you want to be allowed to pick a book again.

4. Stick with what you know.
Sweetness in the Belly, by Camilla Gibb, was unanimously loved by the members of my club. So when her newest novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, was released, it was a no-brainer that we’d read it. And once again we loved it. If you find an author who sparks discussion, moves people to finish the book, and who you enjoy reading, go back to their books whenever you can.

5. Pay attention to what other people are reading.
One of the more interesting books we read last year was selected because my friend Karen saw someone reading it during her commute to work one morning. In addition to recommendations by friends and family, keep an eye on what people around you are reading – if you’re seeing the same book over and over, chances are it’s worth checking out. Plus, watching what others are reading is a fun way to people watch!