Two Romance Book Series That Cheered Me Up

“Comfort book” is not what these two series are for me, precisely, but they did make me smile and laugh plenty. (Not for kids, though, that’s for sure.)

Karma Girl and Hot Mama by Jennifer Estep are set in a superhero version of our world. Nearly everybody bears alliterative names, rich playboys have secret identities and Fight Crime, bombs are made out of explodium, and villains have amazing powers. This is a very good concept for a connected romance series, as comics have always been a lot like soap operas in their rivers of plot and character. (And of course, the Marvel superhero Hellcat was once the Marvel love comic heroine Patsy Walker.) However, most superhero romance fanfic is angsty like the X-Men. Estep prefers screwball comedy.

She comes up with some very fun characters. Carmen is a scruffy, quickwitted, and sharp-tongued ordinary human reporter with a well-founded grudge against heroes and “ubervillains” alike. Fiona is a hotheaded fashion designer with the power of fire, a lost love she still grieves for, and an extremely fast metabolism. Her next book will feature a heroine who despises her annoying superpower of luck, and all the wacky happenings it causes.

Her authorial voice (first person superhero) is convincing, and the party of the first book comes off quite differently than the party of the second. It’s also nice to see these ladies have their own ideas about each of the other continuing characters. Best of all, Estep can both take her own world lightly, and believe in it enough to make the reader believe it. I’ve read a lot of self-conscious books by recent authors, and it drives me nuts. Also, the plots were interesting. The second book’s plotline was simpler and moved along a lot more speedily, but the complications of the first book allowed more exploration of the world and the characters.

In the first book, I found myself skipping the sex scenes and some of the love ones, because frankly they didn’t seem well integrated with the much more interesting action plotline. It was difficult to buy that the people going at each other were the same people doing all the chatting and arguing over the past and Fighting Crime. (Although I might be judging this overharshly, because I was sick that day. Also, I apparently skimmed past some very intentionally funny stuff, so maybe I need a reread.) Anyway, in the second book, I did not feel any disconnect of personality.

(Though honestly, I think Estep could do without sex scenes. You can read those in any number of novels, romance or otherwise, and they’re usually unnecessary. Well-written superhero fic is a good deal rarer. But aeh — I understand the genre rules.)

Deanna Raybourn is writing what I’d call mystery-themed romance rather than a romantic mystery series. (No sex scenes, but lots of romance genre prose at moments of romantic tension. Well done, though, and not unoriginal.) I read the second book in the series first; but since the author valiantly refused to spoil book one, there were no ill effects.

The series is set in Victorian England. The heroine, Lady Julia Grey, is very rich and comes from a large, noble, unconventional family. (All very useful resources for a detective.) In the first book, Silent in the Grave, Lady Julia finds out, over her husband’s body, that he had hired an inquiry agent, Nicholas Brisbane, to find out who was sending him death threats. The two end up working together — though not in any tidy fashion — to solve the mystery.

Brisbane is a lot like Sherlock Holmes — but the book finds ways of pointing out, rather amusingly, that this actually makes him a lot like a dark brooding Bronte hero, too. (Doyle was influenced a lot by the old Gothic stuff, so this totally makes sense. But it’s really amusing.)

In the second book, Silent in the Sanctuary, Lady Julia does the traditional cozy mystery thing and comes home for a big Christmas house party at the old family estate. Of course bodies are bound to turn up.

I was not particularly thrilled by some aspects of the unconventional family members. But it was interesting to see how she used these characters to deflect potential criticism of certain un-PC elements of her mysteries. Also, she managed to throw in any number of Victorian mystery tropes that would rightly upset people in any other context. Her witty writing encouraged me to suspend my disbelief through a lot of improbable stuff; but again, one expects wonders and horrors and very strange people in a Victorian mystery.

The only problem is that sometimes her work is invaded by that self-consciousness so many modern writers have.They can’t let you fall into a spell; they have to stop and point out that you’re reading a book that they don’t really believe in. This makes it harder to suspend disbelief than any amount of improbable occurrences. Fortunately, Raybourn only has an occasional touch of this; and I hope to see it vanish in the next book.

Anyway, that’s the two fun series. Not terribly edifying in certain ways, but interesting and funny, with a lot of real thought and feeling in them.

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