#IndieApril Reads: The Romantics

Welcome to my first #IndieApril blog post! This month, I’ll be using my weekly writings here to recognize and celebrate some of the wonderful, talented indie authors I’ve come to know through Twitter and the larger social media writing community. Please note this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list of all indie authors: there are so many more out there you should support! I just wanted to pick a few whose work I’ve especially loved following over the last few years.

My first three indie author mentions are below, and when I was trying to come up with a theme to connect the works I’ve read from them, the first thing that popped into my head was “romance.” Now I know what you’re thinking: reading a romance novel is just a bunch of sex scenes, unrealistic dialogue, and eye-rolling personal drama. That’s because that’s exactly what I thought before deciding to open my mind to some new possibilities–and I won’t lie, a little bit because reading about that stuff can be, well, fun sometimes. Enough said.

Not all of the writers I mention here bill themselves as romance writers, but each of the stories I’m bringing up here has a large element of romance to the plot, and each is done is an unconventional, interesting way that arrests the reader’s attention and really makes you feel for the characters involved, immersing you in the story in a way that in my experience is really rare. So, without further ado, here are my first three book recommendations for your #IndieApril pleasure (no pun intended, I swear).

I’m also including the Amazon links to all of these, so feel free to pick up a copy and support our indie authors if one tickles your fancy!

Skye McDonald: Not Suitable for Work (Anti-Belle Series, Book 1)

Of all the books I’m talking about today, this is the one that’s closest to the true “romance” novel, but there’s nothing conventional about it. The Anti-Belle series, as McDonald calls her books, are all about empowering her female characters and following them as they overcome obstacles both personal and professional and find a sense of self-love along with the admittedly steamy romantic relationships they pursue. It’s a refreshing thing to see in an age where people seem captivated by questionable and borderline-unhealthy depictions of romance we get from things like 50 Shades of Gray.

The first book in the series (which feature stories and characters that are interconnected, MCU-style, how cool is that?) features Celeste Greene, a driven and determined woman who’s moved back home to Nashville (the setting for all these books) from NYC after a disastrous failed relationship that’s made her question her self-worth and trust in other people. She’s competing for a new job with Ben Addison, a sometime musician who obviously finds her attractive and, well, things get rather heated. And complicated.

I’ll be honest: before this book, I had never read a straight-up romance novel, even one a bit outside the traditional romance box, and was therefore pretty dismissive of the genre in general. But Not Safe for Work single-handedly changed my mind. Is there sex? Yes, I won’t lie, there’s quite a bit of it, and it’s VERY good. But the thing that got me was how emotionally attached I got to both Celeste and Ben almost immediately. Despite their flaws, they’re both eminently reasonable, well-rounded, and likeable characters and people who are also surrounded by supporting characters just as real, impactful, and understanding as they are. Does this mean their relationship is easy? Oh no, not by a long shot. There’s plenty of screw-ups on both sides and rip-your-heart-out moments where you’re sure the happy ending you hoped for isn’t going to happen. But does it in the end? Like I’d tell you. I just want to be clear what an amazing emotional roller-coaster of a book this is, one that had me hooked all the way to the last page. If you’re not sure if romance is a genre you’d like, I challenge you to read one of McDonald’s books. They might just change your mind like they did mine.

Sara Flower Kjeldsen: Sally

Unlike the previous novel, which is rooted firmly in the present day, the next two are based in much different times, but are no less compelling for it. Sally, for example, by Sara Kjeldsen, is set more than a century ago in a small rural town, the kind where everyone knows everyone else’s business and small-minded, puritanical morals run the scene. The protagonist, a teenage girl named Sally, offers shelter to an older male neighbor one day when a storm blows up and a tornado wrecks the town. The consequences of her actions, however, are that she is forced to marry said man, farmer Jeremiah, when neither of them really wants it because of public perception. As if this weren’t enough, things get even darker and more complicated as Sally’s father plots to use his business and religious influence to gain control of the town, using Sally as one of his many puppets, and begins to murder anyone who stands in his way. Forced together into an unhappy union, Sally and Jeremiah have to form an unlikely alliance to stop him, but different lives, priorities, and stations bring everything to a final confrontation that won’t be anything like what you expect.

I don’t want to spoil anything about this book because there’s plenty of unexpected twists and turns, but I just want to say that it’s so refreshing to read about a protagonist who’s not so straightforward and simple. Sally, as a character, is deeply complicated and always real, struggling with her lowly station in life as both a farmer and a woman when all she wanted was to get an education and make something of herself. It’s completely understandable, but no less heartbreaking as she takes a darker and darker turn as the story progresses. Her relationship with Jeremiah is fascinating too as they seesaw from barely tolerating each other to almost loving each other as they slowly get to know themselves and each other better. With the violence, death, and intrigue surrounding them, this story is a thrill ride of an entirely different sort and covers all kinds of historical points of interest along the way, from arranged marriages to race relations and slavery to the plight of women in society. If at any point you think you really know how this book ends, I’m here to tell you you’re wrong–and that’s a huge part of what makes this thrill ride so great.

Nicole Scarano: Pomegranate

Now that we’ve explored colonial rural America, let’s go even further back: to ancient Greece, no less! Pomegranate, by Nicole Scarano, is an inventive and delightfully subversive retelling of Greek mythology, blending many stories from the descent of Hades to the underworld to Persephone, trials and monsters, and many others in between, along with a core romance between the two main characters–one that becomes a triangle with a jealous ex.

In this story, Hades is not only a woman, but a mortal uplifted by the gods into demigod-like status as the lover of Zeus: however, not everyone on Olympus is a fan of hers, and the other gods conspire to get Hades a sort-of promotion that will take her away from Zeus. She’s cast into the underworld, where she will be queen and a god in exchange for Zeus having nothing more to do with her–something Zeus agrees to. Heartbroken, Hades is resigned to rule alone when she one day happens upon a mortal man, Alkaios, and once again falls in love. Of course Zeus, as the horrible, abusive ex he is in the book, can’t let this go, and soon Hades is battling the gods themselves for her right to choose for herself who she loves. But this time, she has the advantage: the powers of the underworld at her disposal and a mortal world ripe for sowing some chaos. The gods are about to find that they’ve created their own worst enemy.

Pomegranate is the fantasy book of these three, and I have to say that even though I’m usually a sucker for a good myth reimagining, there’s no way I was prepared for how amazing Scarano’s adaptation is. So many elements of ancient Greek myths, from the hydra to the origin of Hades and the underworld’s power structure, is creatively respun into a new form that’s fascinating to read about and builds a lifelike, believable world in the process. Again, I won’t say too much for fear of spoiling the ending, but this is another story where the twist will hit you where you least expect it. Also, the romance between goddess and man (Hades and Alkaios) is a hit and a great demonstration of the desperation two characters feel and the lengths they’ll go to in order to stay together, despite the literal mountains placed in their way. It’s exciting, inventive, and an overall great read.

Happy reading, and stay tuned for next time when I dive into some more of my favorite indie authors!

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