First Reads by the Dear Author Crew
I thought it would be fun if reminisced about our first romance read. To prime the pump, so to speak, I asked the Dear Author crew to write up a small post about their first romance reads. Share your own reading experiences in the comments.
Janine (link to Janine’s posts)
I was thirteen years old when I discovered the genre with Johanna Lindsey’s Heart of Thunder (1983) ( A | BN | K S ). This is a vintage book. The heroine, Samantha, was spoiled and willful, the daughter of a wealthy rancher. She romances the hero, Hank, to make another man jealous, and then she dumps Hank cold. Hank retaliates by forcing himself on her, which she finds blissful beyond imagining, and she punishes him for that by (A) shooting him, and (B) putting his face on “Wanted” posters. And that’s just the beginning.
I kept this book for years, partly from nostalgia, but got rid of it long ago. It didn’t hold up for me because I lost the ability to believe in blissful rapes, because of weaknesses in the craftsmanship, and because the cycle of “I hate you / Let’s have sex” got tiring. I don’t miss it, but sometimes I miss aspects of the historicals of that era. I miss the unapologetically flawed characters. I miss the strong, take no prisoner heroines. I miss the fire and the freshness of those books. Most of all, I miss the excitement of discovering a new genre.
Dabney. (link to Dabney’s posts)
In 1975, when I was 14 and living in Marin, California, I read about a million Barbara Cartland books. Not one of them made an impression on me. I got them from the library—I was also reading the classics constantly back then—and ran through about five a week. My family didn’t really watch TV, so Dame Cartland was my no-brain time. Then, one evening, our babysitter (I have three younger siblings) brought me a copy of Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love. It changed my life.
I knew, of course, theoretically about sex. I and all my friends had paged through The Joy of Sex—and been grossed out by all that hair—and I’d even read Coffee, Tea or Me? and The Happy Hooker (My parents had “hidden” copies.) But none of those books made intercourse or oral sex seem like things I’d find wildly exciting. I was even on the fence about French kissing—I’d done it a couple of times and found it slobbery.
Then, I read Sweet Savage Love ( A | BN) and, suddenly, it was very clear to me I had a lot to look forward to. The sex in that book was so scorching; I read the love scenes between Steve and Ginny over and over again. Part of it was, I’m sure, Ginny never initiated anything—until the end of the book, her pleasure is always forced on her by Steve. That worked for me—I couldn’t see myself initiating anything with any male and so I thrilled to the idea that, some day, some gorgeous guy would inflict ecstasy on me. I paid no attention to the plot of the book—I feel sure I skimmed the long, involved sections about the Mexican Revolution. But, I loved reading about Steve and Ginny, their passion, their fights, and, their hard-won love.
I just reread Sweet Savage Love. I still find Steve and Ginny to be hot as hell. I still was bored by most of the background plot. I was startled to read how many other lovers the two had and found that to be a bit of a turnoff and wondered I hadn’t noticed or cared about that aspect of the book when I was young. I also, in this read, felt too much in the book was over-the-top. Parts of just made me roll my eyes.
I still think Sweet Savage Love changed my life. Not only did it open my eyes to the possibility of torrid passion in my own life, it also significantly influenced what sort of romances I sought out then and still seek out now. I still like many an alpha hero and I still find sexy love scenes where the hero forcibly seduces the heroine. When I read and enjoy Black Ice or To Have and To Hold, I suspect I do so in part because of my response, so many years ago, to Steve Morgan’s seduction of Ginny Brandon.
Josephine (link to Josephine’s posts)
I was a reading glutton as a kid. When I discovered an author with a long back list, I read my way through it, book after book after book until there was nothing left. Some of my early favorites were Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie and Anne McCaffery. Later, Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and Marion Chesney. I had a Jude Devereaux phase in high school. Initially, I chose my favorite authors by how many books they’d written. Appreciation for quality over quantity came with time.
The first romance that stands out in my memory was a regency about about a timid plain jane who kisses her unrequited crush at a masked ball only to return to her wallflower ways before the night is out, leaving the smitten object of her affections to search for her until, years later, he gives up and marries an heiress for her money. The heiress just happens to be…the wallflower. The weird thing about the story is that the heroine begins an affair with her own husband, and he never recognizes her. I forgot the title of the book, and only found it again last year: A Masked Deception by Mary Balogh. While I will always have a soft spot for stories that feature disguise or mistaken identity, A Masked Deception ( A | BN) did not hold up well to rereading. It is yet another entry on the long, long list of Things I Thought Were Great When I Was Twelve But Now, Meh.
Jayne. (link to Jayne’s posts)
Looking back, I’m trying to remember what first got me started with romance. I used to read a lot of Molly Costain Haycraft and Norah Lofts books – especially about European royalty. I remember as an adult being bummed when I discovered just how much vaseline they’d smeared on the lens of historical fact to make those HEA sound real.
Next I advanced to Barbara …. Cartland…and all her…heart shaped face heroines….and manly, dark haired….heroes. Honestly the covers of those books make the scowling hero look as if he’s about to snap the child sized heroine in half. When I got bored with the Cartland books I branched out at our local UBS – I still have fond memories of that place – and tried lots of the old Fawcett Crest imprints (Sylvia Thorpe and Mira Stables were favorites of mine) which is where my love of Georgian era books began. Oh yes, and Alexander Dumas and “The Three Musketeers.” Lurve, lurve, lurve me some swashbuckling.
After being scarred from skimming a copy of one of my mother’s books – Beulah Land (shudders) – it took me a while to try a straight old skool historical of the times (this is the late 70s) but I finally took the plunge. The first one I recall is Woodiwiss’s “The Wolf and the Dove.” ( A | BN) Ah, Aislinn (and I wondered for years how the hell her name was supposed to be pronounced) and Wulfgar. This is the book to which I compare all Bastard Norman Knight + Saxon Heroine novels to this day. This is also when I discovered Mary Stewart’s books and read my first Heyer and fell in love with “The Masqueraders” ( A | BN | K S ) (Georgian again!) and “Beauvallet.” ( A | BN | K S )
When I left for college, romance reading fell a bit by the wayside and it was 4 years before I stumbled upon the first 3 books in a reissue of a series I’d never heard of but which sounded interesting. Once I got started with the first one though, I was glued to it and eagerly snapped up the next 3 books when they came out, lost in the world of Lymond. Let me pause for a moment’s reverential silence for the great Dorothy Dunnett.
It still took me almost 10 years after college to really get back into reading romance. I’ve revisited TWTD, which has held up surprisingly well, but … I think … Cartland is well … in my past.
Jennie. (link to Jennie’s posts)
There wasn’t one great book that started me on romance. I know I read a few here and there in my teenage years (when I was mostly into horror), but the book that got me seeking out good romances in my 20s (and drew me into the romance community) was ostensibly not even a romance novel – Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. Whatever genre you call it, the book enthralled me. So much so that I immediately tried to recreate the magical feeling I got from it, with mixed results. I remember reading a couple of books I didn’t hate (a Sandra Brown contemp called, I believe, Where There’s Smoke, and an over-the-top but very hot Indian romance by Brenda Joyce, Fires of Paradise) and a couple I did (Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower and a very rapey – rapier even than TF&TF! – by Catherine Coulter, the name of which escapes me). I think it took me at least several months to find my direction as a true romance reader. It wasn’t until I stumbled on my first Laura Kinsale novel, Seize the Fire, that I really got a taste again of what had gripped me as I read Outlander – that sense of being transported, of feeling some facsimile of the intense emotions the characters themselves felt. I went on to discover Patricia Gaffney, Penelope Williamson, and other – even better – Laura Kinsale novels, but it was Seize the Fire that hooked me for good.
Robin. (link to Robin aka Janet’s posts)
In college, I used to worry about my roommate, who spent a lot of time around finals reading Romance novels instead of studying (I shouldn’t have worried, though – she’s brilliant and now an influential scholar in her own field). It wasn’t until years later that the same roommate, now a dear friend, got her revenge by putting together a Romance conversion package for me. On the initial list were books by Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale, Jo Goodman, Patricia Gaffney, and others, although the first two books were Ivory’s Black Silk and Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star.
I don’t remember which I read first, although I think it was Black Silk, only that my experience of them was very different. The Shadow and the Star fascinated but repelled me, mostly because of Leda, who seemed to embody all the negative stereotypes I’d associated with the genre – passive, weak, moralistic, a martyr.
Black Silk ( A | BN | K S ), on the other hand, captivated me: it reminded me of the literary fiction I grew up loving and drew me beyond it. I adored Submit’s quirky, incisive standoffishness and was utterly seduced by Graham’s cheeky, dissolute autocracy. That book confounded every awful cliché I’d harbored about Romance and made me curious to read on to Goodman and Gaffney and Spencer, and beyond. I even circled back to The Shadow and the Star, which upon another reading (or three), finally won me over, as well, once I understood the language of the genre well enough to read Leda more proficiently. Still, though, Black Silk remains my favorite Romance novel of all time, possibly because I read it first, but certainly because its lush, eccentric complexity makes me fall back in love with it every time I re-read it.
January. (link to January’s posts)
I spent a lot of time raiding my mother’s bookshelves in-between library visits or when I ran out of Sunfire books (remember those?) My mother had a lot of Jude Deveraux, Catherine Coulter, and Judith McNaught. I believe my first foray into ‘official’ romance was Whitney, My Love ( A | BN | K S ). I remember the cover of WML was a pencil drawing of a waif with big, wild hair and sparkly blue eyes and I fell in love with that book before I opened the first page. On the inside, I was less than enthralled with Whitney. She was an ass. Of course, Clayton was a bigger ass, so it worked out for them.
I’d never read something so dramatic and so intensely emotional as that book. Whitney and Clay were awful people, but the entire world of that book existed solely in the confines of that ridiculous relationship, and I ate it up like candy. I’m inclined to think that the rape scene in that book warped a piece of my 12 year old brain. To this day, I still love WML despite it’s massive flaws, awful love triangle, whiny heroine, and the forced seduction trope. Even now I’m willing to forgive horrible characters as long as they glue me to the page.
Jia. (link to Jia’s posts)
While I am, and have always been, predominantly a speculative fiction reader, I was exposed to romance novels fairly early in life. I was around 12 or so when my grandmother give me a ton of her old category romances from the 70s and early 80s. Some of these books were seriously vintage — it’s how I knew Silhouette wasn’t always part of Harlequin and was once a completely different publisher!
The bulk of these books were from the Harlequin Presents line. I read them all. Some were forgettable. Some were enjoyable. Some faded from memory over time. The one that left a lasting impression, however, was the Violet Winspear. I wish I could remember the title. The book itself was about a woman who intended to become a nun but had to put that off to take care of her younger sister, who had a form of hysterical paralysis. While staying at the Italian villa where her sister lived, she meets and falls in love with the brother of her sister’s husband. Looking back, it was a very melodramatic, angsty and overwrought book with a very alpha hero — which, I suppose, fits the Presents line very well. I don’t recall the heroine being a doormat though; she very much had a spine of steel but she definitely came from the school of Plain Jane spinster heroines.
All those Harlequin Presents left their mark though. To this day, I will forgive much if the emotional arc of a book, no matter the genre, is strong and intense. In fact, I prefer a messy, flawed book with a strong emotional core over the perfect, technically competent one that’s emotionally sterile. It explains quite a bit about my reading choices through the years.
Lazaraspaste. (link to Lazaraspaste’s posts)
I’m not really sure how I started reading romance. I think I just went to the other side of the library. I had, of course, read a Barbara Cartland my mother randomly possessed aloud for the amusement of cousins and sisters, but I didn’t properly read the book. The first romance I properly read was Amanda Quick’s The Paid Companion. ( A | BN) I think I was looking for books about governesses because I’d been through all the Mary Stewarts nineteen times and wanted something similar. Strangely, I was also thinking that a really good idea for a story was one where a guy hired some chick to be his fiancé. I don’t know why I was thinking this, but I was. When I stumbled on The Paid Companion, I realized it had the plot from my imagination. This was very serendipitous. So that’s the story: aristocratic dude hires governess to pose as his fiancé because he doesn’t want to get married. Sparks fly and they fall in love. I don’t remember much else about it. I think she lost her virginity near a fountain at a ball. That’s kind of it. It sent me on a glom, though. I rapidly made my way through all of Amanda Quick’s books and then just haphazardly began to pull others that had my favorite tropes—or seemed to, based on the back blurb and online book reviews—from the shelf.
I still dig romance novels with governesses. This is because I love Jane Eyre. If one really wanted to be technical about it, I suppose my actual first romance novel was Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, but I read that as a mystery novel. When I was a pre-teen, I read mainly mystery novels so I don’t count that one. I didn’t think of it as romance and I didn’t know that’s what it was. I know now in retrospect. I haven’t read The Paid Companion since, but I’ve tried re-reading other Amanda Quick novels. They just don’t do it for me anymore. My tastes have changed. But they may change back. There may come a time when I re-read it and I enjoy it once again. I still like stories about governesses, though. There’s something about the plot (which is really just Jane Eyre) that I find fantastically satisfying. I think it is because stories about governesses are often stories about loneliness and limited choices, and I find that speaks to me. They are my bread and butter.
Sarah Frantz. (link to Dr. Sarah’s posts)
My first romance was Anne Weale’s The River Room ( A | BN). My mother left it lying around the living room one day when I was 12 and I picked it up. It was a typical Harlequin Presents: the secretary (or similar) heroine, the overwhelming hero. I enjoyed it, but soon after that, I read Roberta Leigh’s Man in a Million and there was a line in there that hooked something in my soul and hasn’t ever let go:
Incredible though it was, she knew that this big, strong man was trembling; trembling because he was pleading with her to believe what he had said.
That view into the (female-authored) masculine psyche did it for me and I never looked back. Significant romances since then have tended towards the BDSM side of things: some of Johanna Lindsey’s early stand-alones made an impact, with the not-quite-forced sex of Secret Fire ( A | BN), Prisoner of My Desire ( A | BN), and Warrior’s Woman ( A | BN ). My mother and I shared Harlequin Temptations from 1988 for a few years, and Candace Schuler’s Sophisticated Lady (1989) ( A | BN) had the first sex scene I read in which someone gets tied up. In 1996 I discovered Laura Kinsale’s damaged heroes (especially Sherry from Seize the Fire ( A | BN)) when I worked at Barnes & Noble for a summer. And Robin Schone and Susan Johnson in 1997.
My first m/m romance was a link to Matthew Haldeman-Time’s free short stories on his website, sent to me by author Stephanie Vaughan (the only author except Joey Hill who managed to write a successful femdom/malesub book that I enjoyed): http://www.
And the rest is history.
Sunita. (link to Sunita’s posts)
Oh man, I have to go back a LONG way for this. I must have been about 12. My mother let me use her adult library card and I found April Lady ( A | BN), by Georgette Heyer, on the paperback rack (I even remember the cover). It featured a Marriage of Convenience, older man/younger woman, and plenty of lively supporting characters. I’m pretty sure some of it went over my head, but I remember thinking the scene where Cardross, the hero, visits Nell in her bedroom was oh so racy. Clearly he wanted to make love to her! There was enough light humor mixed in with the (very tame) romance to make it appealing to me at that point. I wanted a love story, but nothing explicit. I blame it on my Indian background; this was before even college students dated openly, so I was hideously backward and ignorant when I arrived in the US. And in a weird way, 1810s London was closer to the world I’d left than the one I now inhabited (California in the 1970s).
I’m pretty sure I’d read Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt around the same time, but April Lady was the first novel in which the romance was front and center. I was hooked on Heyer and the genre from then on. The town I lived in was the county seat and it had a big main library and a couple of branches. They had all the Heyers and a lot more. Those libraries kept me going with a couple of books a week (more in the summers) until I went away to college.
Jane. (link to Jane’s posts)
I started out reading romances by surreptitiously reading my sister’s stash. I think she kept them under her bed. Romances were verboten in my household but I remember reading them under the covers with a flashlight. I made the mistake of telling Ned this and now whenever I catch my daughter reading in her bed, with a flashlight, I get a reproving look from Ned if I attempt to admonish the tot. Clearly reading by flashlight is a family tradition. I recall reading Harlequin Romances. There were no sex scenes but a plethora of punishing kisses. Back in the day, I equated romances with category books. I was afraid of the bigger books, the ones known as mass market, because sometimes they were filled with women making bad choices aka breaking up with men and running off to live a life of happiness by themselves. What insanity! Please remember I was like twelve at the time.
The first big book I remember reading was Whitney My Love. ( A | BN | K S ) Like January above, that book was transformative in my reading life. First, I had no idea that romances came in hardcover form. Man, there were entire swaths of the library that opened up to me that hadn’t before. Second, it was the first book I recall that had explicit sex scenes in it. I did not understand at the time that Clayton was raping Whitney. I only knew that he was hurting her and that he hurt her throughout the book when she didn’t deserve it. But I also recall being frustrated with Whitney (don’t talk to Paul, you silly chit!). Yet the melodrama was something my young teen self wolfed down, dabbing my eyes with kleenexes in between helpings.
My reading life took another turn when I bought Scandal ( A | BN | K | S ) by Amanda Quick. It was one of the first romance books I purchased. I remember buying it from a local convenience/gas store called Tom Thumb and it was in the wire racks above the magazines. I purchased it with money I earned delivering papers. I loved that book and still do. It is worlds away from the rapetastic melodrama that was Whitney, My Love, but I remember both with fondness and appreciation. Both McNaught and Quick/Krentz along with Joan Wolf’s Candlelight Ecstasy romances form the foundations of my romance reading world.