Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Contemporary Romance

Black Sparkle RomanceIt’s rare to find contemporary romance by African writers in English, so I was eager to try Ankara Press, the new romance imprint of Nigeria’s Cassava Republic Press. Black Sparkle Romance, by Amara Nicole Okolo, is set in Nigeria’s (and the continent of Africa’s) largest city, Lagos. Mira Adaora Dike, an assistant editor of a fashion magazine, and Dominic Odogwu, a talented fashion photographer, meet cute in a fender bender and then have to work together on a photoshoot for Black Sparkle. Dominic is successful and privileged but easygoing and fun loving. Mira struggles more in her career and is very emotional and driven. He falls for her quickly, but she isn’t sure she can trust him. Much of the humor in the book comes from her attempts to tamp down her attraction to Dominic which tend to have unexpected results.

I loved reading about Lagos, with its beautiful lagoon and beaches, and puzzling out occasional bits of dialogue in Yoruba and “pidgin english.” As a romance, Black Sparkle Romance had some less appealing features: the constant brand name dropping, the personification of Mira’s conscience as “The Rational Mind,” and the predictable way that the story developed. Unfortunately, except for the setting, I was too often reminded of other romantic narratives (The Devil Wears Prada, Fifty Shades of Grey, Bridget Jones’s Diary) to feel the unique pull of this one.

Verdict: Borrow (unless you want to support a new imprint that focuses on African romance, in which case, Buy.) 

Flirting With DisasterIn Flirting With Disaster, painter Isabelle West lives in a cabin in the woods of Wyoming, hiding from a past she can never reveal. When Deputy U.S. Marshal Tom Duncan shows up at her door, she’s terrified, but as their initial frosty encounter warms into lust and eventually love, she realizes that he’s not a threat to her. Unfortunately, Tom intuits that Isabelle has a secret and his inability to leave well enough alone means he inadvertently puts her in danger. Isabelle has a great group of women friends (this is actually the second book in Dahl’s Girls Night Out series, but it stands alone) and when they get together, wine flows and hilarity ensues. I loved the dynamic of free spirited, sex-positive Isabelle and straight arrow but never judgy Tom. It’s a given that Dahl’s romances are hot (this one has angry/sad sex on a ladder), but I was unexpectedly moved to tears by Isabelle’s emotional journey from hidden vulnerability to healthy interdependence.

Verdict: Buy

BurntToast B&BAlthough this is the fifth book in a series set in a small town in Washington state it can easily be read as a standalone. Derrick Richards is trying unsuccessfully to keep his late parents’ B&B afloat when Ginsberg Sloan shows up. They share an instant physical attraction, but they couldn’t be more different in their personalities. Ginsberg (he named himself after the poet) loves his job as a stuntman on a TV show, embraces a wide array of gender traits without apology or fear, and is almost relentlessly cheerful and optimistic. He happens to be transgender to Derrick’s cisgender identity, but the conflict is really rooted in Derrick’s fear of connection. I liked The Burnt Toast B&B overall, but Derrick’s immaturity showcased against Ginsberg’s positivity made the HEA a bit of a tough sell. Still, I’m so glad that I can find a wider array of identities in contemporary romance.

Verdict: Borrow

Party LinesEmma Barry has been a great new discovery for me. Party Lines is the third book in her original The Easy Part series, set among politicos in Washington D.C.. Lydia Reales is an idealistic Latina who works as campaign staffer for a Republican presidential candidate, and Michael Picetti is a more experienced, and thus jaded, campaigner for the opposing party. This one is great for West Wing fans, as Barry doesn’t shy away from American politics, or life on the grueling, unglamorous campaign trail. She weaves in personal politics as the more liberal Michael can be ignorant to his own race, class, and gender privileges, and the conservative Lydia has to negotiate her lack of those privileges on a near constant basis while resisting attempts of higher-ups to reduce her to some kind of ethnic token.

Lydia and Michael furtively court each other, argue passionately and make love with just as much enthusiasm. This is a more realistic romance with a lower fantasy quotient (and higher bad cafeteria food quotient) than many others, but my favorite romances are the ones where I can see how love changes the way someone sees the world and who they are, and Party Lines delivers. Although I might have preferred a slightly different politics-to-relationship page ratio (I wanted more of Lydia and Michael as a couple) I thought this was a terrific conclusion to a unique and wonderful series.

Verdict: Buy

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