My favourite romantic novels – part 2: One For The Money


Janet Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum’s novel from 1994 is probably an odd choice for ‘romantic novel’ because it most definitely sits on the crime shelf in book shops. It won a Crime Writers’ Association award for best debut, and the sequel, Two For the Show, won a CWA award for best comic novel. Janet Evanovich is a triple threat: she can write romance, comedy, and also intricately plot a crime caper.

But Evanovich’s first career was writing romantic fiction, and she can’t seem to resist suffusing her crime series with oodles of angsty love stuff.  For me, and I suspect for a lot of Evanovich fans, the book is a gorgeously romantic read, with plenty of love/hate flirting between bounty hunter Stephanie Plum and drop-dead gorgeous cop Joe Morelli.

Evanovich could have started the novel with a crime being committed or with an introduction to our heroine, but instead she chooses to put Joe Morelli front and centre.

There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me – not forever, but periodically.

In fact, when we do learn about the heroine, it’s in relation to Morelli. The two were childhood neighbours in a Jersey suburb where the ‘Houses were attached and narrow. Yards were small. Cars were American’.

When I was a kid I didn’t ordinarily play with Joe Morelli. He lived two blocks over and was two years older. ‘Stay away from those Morelli boys,’ my mother had warned me. ‘They’re wild. I hear things about what they do to girls when they get them alone.’

‘What kinds of things?’ I’d asked eagerly.

That ‘eagerly’ tells you a lot about Stephanie.

We then learn that she and Morelli had a short-lived fling as teenagers and that she never really forgave him when he dumped her to join the navy. Morelli had seduced her behind the counter of the bakery she worked in, a fact that she tries to hide when someone asks if she knows him.

I nodded. ‘I sold him a cannoli when I was in high school.’

Connie grunted. ‘Honey, half of all the women in New Jersey sold him their cannoli.”

We meet grown-up Stephanie newly laid-off from a discount lingerie store and behind on her car re-payments. She’s desperate for cash so she accepts a job as a bail bond agent (read: bounty hunter) for her scummy cousin Vinnie.

And one of the first fugitives she has to apprehend is Joe Morelli who, although having had an exemplary record as a vice cop, has now gone missing after being accused of murder. The idea of bringing him in is dangerously appealing; a way to pay him back for breaking her heart, although she tries to tell herself otherwise.

Finding Morelli had nothing to do with revenge. Finding Morelli had to do with the rent money. Yeah, right. That’s why I suddenly had this knot in my stomach.

It’s soon clear to us and Stephanie that the charges against Morelli have been trumped up. And while she’s got sympathy for him, what Stephanie cares most about is staying off the breadline and for that she needs the paycheck she’ll receive once she brings him in.

Her biggest asset is her desperation, but she hides this with plenty of chutzpah. After she finds Morelli holed up in a cousin’s apartment, she’s shocked that he simply laughs off the idea that she’ll be able to ever force him into custody. Stephanie, however, refuses to be outwardly cowed.

‘I may be new at this apprehension stuff but I’m not stupid and I’m not a quitter. I told Vinnie I’d bring you in and that’s exactly what I intend to do. You can run if you want, but I’ll find you, and I’ll do whatever is necessary to apprehend you.’

What a load of bull! I couldn’t believe I was saying it. I’d been lucky to find him this first time, and the only way I was ever going to apprehend him was if I stumbled upon him already bound, gagged, and knocked unconscious. Even then, I wasn’t sure how far I could drag him.

The beauty of this book is that the crime plot and the romance strands are neatly intertwined. While pursuing leads to find Morelli, Stephanie gets embroiled in the plot to frame Morelli and pisses off some very bad guys. Morelli then has to dive in and help her escape and the pair end up working together to clear his name.

But, and this is what makes Stephanie such an admirable character, she never lets her attraction for Morelli interfere with her professional aim of bringing him in. They end up finding the evidence they need to clear him, but just at the point where, if this were a traditional romance they might finally kiss, she ends up locking him in the back of a van and driving him into custody and claiming that long-cherished bounty cheque.

Evanonovich amps up the fun by adding a second possible romantic hero in the form of Ranger, who’s also a bounty hunter and quite the badass. And as the series progresses readers get to choose whether they’re #TeamMorelli or #TeamRanger.

The series is still going strong (Book 25!) but my allegiances have never wavered. Team Morelli all the way.

PS: Don’t you adore the original cover? Later editions have girlier covers, but I love how this image reflects Stephanie’s hard-boiled side. And look at how beautifully Book 2 fits:IMG_3922


My favourite romantic novels – part 1

HLAYI read all sorts of novels. I love a good murder mystery, a clever crime caper, anything that makes me laugh, and of course, a great love story. Romantic fiction is the one genre that I go back to again and again. When I look at the books I’ve re-read the most, it’s always the ones with a great love story at their heart. The same goes for other forms of story telling. The TV shows that have captured my imagination, and have kept pulling me back – even when the show goes dangerously off the rails (Hello, X-Files!) – are those that give us a proper relationship to get behind. Buffy & Angel, John & Aeryn, Stuart & Vince, and Mulder & Scully. (Don’t try and tell me our favourite FBI agents weren’t romantically involved.)

So, in no particular order, I decided to look at my favourite romantic novels and try to work out why they continue to tempt me back into their well-thumbed pages.

First up is:

Here’s Looking at You, by Mhairi McFarlane

I love all of Mhari McFarlane’s novels but Here’s Looking at You, her second, is my favourite. The book is told from two points-of-view – heroine Anna Alessi and hero James Fraser. Anna is hugely relatable which is no mean feat, considering she is drop-dead gorgeous and has a kick-ass job as a university lecturer in Byzantine history. But Anna’s life hasn’t always been easy. And the prologue zooms in on a humiliating incident at school where, while standing alone on stage at a talent show, she’s hit by ‘a confectionery tornado’.

It was a green Praline Triangle that got her first, glancing off her cheek and arcing onto the stage floor. She felt a small pain in her stomach as another missile hit its target, like a rubber band being snapped against her body. A purple one with the hazelnut sailed past her head and she ducked out of the way, only to catch a toffee penny on the chin.

And then came a hurricane of Quality Street, as the air filled with a blizzard of shiny,  multi-coloured shrapnel.

We feel for poor, friendless Anna (or rather Aureliana as she was back then), her bullies laughing backstage, including her secret crush James. Your heart breaks as the scene ends leaving her alone and helpless:

She had long ago steeled herself not to cry under pressure. Not only did she not want to give her tormentors the satisfaction, she’d figured out the less reaction you gave bullies, the faster they lost interest. She saw no reason to break that rule now and start weeping in front of a vast and hostile audience.

Unfortunately, at that moment of dignified resolve she was hit by a Coconut Éclair in the left eye, and they both started streaming anyway.

Back then, she was unpopular and teased for being overweight, but now we fast forward to present-day Anna, who’s gone from ugly duckling to swan. But the physical transformation hasn’t magically erased her insecurities and that’s what makes Anna such an engaging protagonist. We’ve all believed that if only that one physical imperfection was instantly corrected we’d be happy and confident. But Anna proves what we all secretly know: that’s not the case. If anything, her outer beauty makes her even more vulnerable – as her best friend Michelle tells her, she’s ‘gorgeous and insecure, the chauvinist’s dream’.

So, Anna is a fabulous character – what’s James like? Well, although guilty by association with the bullies at school, James seems to have turned out OK as an adult. He’s on a steep learning curve though, as he’s going through a divorce after finding out his beautiful art-teacher wife was having an affair. James starts to slowly realise that Eva’s skin-deep beauty is not enough. Maybe that’s an obvious realisation for a lot of people, but having arm candy gave James confidence. At one point he thinks that his work colleagues would automatically like Eva, and possibly admire him, just because she’s pretty. When he finds out that not many people liked her, he’s shocked.

So, as a reader you’re tuning into the fact that James is rather wary of good looks and it creates a barrier between him and Anna. He’s convinced he doesn’t fancy her anyway, although we both know that he is slowly falling for her. There’s a wonderful scene when they go bowling and the physical chemistry between them surprises them both. They were BOWLING, people. That nerdiest of pastimes. Yet in Mhari McFarlane’s hands knocking over ten pins turns into something sizzling hot.

Anna has convinced herself she’s over her crush on James and is half-heartedly dating other guys during the book, and the opening scene offers a window into just how disastrous Anna’s dating experiences are. Suffice to say that Mhairi McFarlane once described her book as ‘Pride and Prejudice with added piss-play.’ Luckily, Anna has good friends who help her laugh off her unfortunate encounters.

I read somewhere once that the it’s an individual scene that cements a work as a firm favourite and that’s definitely the case with HLAY. Something has happened in Anna’s past. It’s only hinted at, but the reader is aware of it right from the beginning. Well, the scene where we finally find out hit me in the solar plexus. I had to stop reading to give my blurry eyes a chance to recover. That scene is everything.

I’m not ruining anything by revealing that Anna and James eventually get together. The ending is kinda swoonsome; they’re in a restaurant and the subject of marriage comes up. Mhairi McFarlane gives us a perfect, romantic and funny version that in lesser hands would be cloying. And she does it with napkins. If that isn’t a sign of writing genius, I don’t know what is.

If you haven’t already read it, go and get it right now.

You can thank me later.


The To-Be-Read List

book pile

Before anyone can be a writer, they first have to be a reader.

I feel very lucky that I was given the opportunity to fall in love with reading as child. My mum happily took us to our local library, and I remember being amazed that there were people out there who let you take books home and trusted you to return them. And it was free! The library of my youth has changed locations, but it still exists, thank goodness. And having just checked, I’m pleased to report it’s open 7 days a week. (Thank you, Ealing Council.)

These days, I tend to buy most of the books I read, which is both a blessing and a curse. It results in straining shelves, surfaces stacked with tottering piles of paperbacks, and  large doses of guilt. Nothing reproaches me more than an unread book.

Every time the book fairy appears clutching a new book I always try to add it to the bottom of the pile so that the books that have been languishing unread the longest don’t keep getting shunted further down the line. It almost never works. I usually end up dipping into it first and if I’m gripped I keep reading. (Try keeping your mitts off Nicola Mostyn’s brilliant debut, The Gods of Love.)

Sometimes, when you finally get round to reading a book you’ve had ages, it turns out to be so amazingly good that you chide yourself for letting it sit so long gathering dust. (The dusting fairy visits far less frequently than her bookish counterpart.) Apologies to Juliet Ashton and her brilliant book The Woman at Number 24.

The TBR List is a fact of life. Yes, the guilt pangs are an occupational hazard, but there’s also something comforting, decadent even, in having an (almost) endless supply of book to get lost in.