O Harlequin, Where Art Thou? asks Michele Mills

Once upon a time, back in the dark ages of the late eighties, I read a Barbara Cartland.

I figured, why not give it a go? I’d heard Ms. Cartland was related by marriage to Princess Diana and the stories sounded so royal and romantic. So I went in, read maybe two of them and stopped. At the time, deeply tanned, emotionally stunted heroes and helpless virgins weren’t doing it for me.

Around this same time I also tried reading a few harlequin-type categories marketed towards teenagers. They were sweet, but a bit yawn inducing for my tastes so I gave up mmb1on those too and that was that. I didn’t bother graduating to actual Harlequins thinking I’d find more tame story lines so I skipped them entirely and focused on sci fi books and sweeping historicals with shirtless pirates, cowboys and purple prose sex scenes and called it a day.

Fast forward twenty-five years (I know, I’m ancient).

I started reading Maya Banks because, erotic. *rawr* And this was before the whole 50 Shades explosion! I was busy devouring Maya’s backlist and frontlist when I saw that she’d released a few Harlequin Desires. Desires? I was like, what’s that? I didn’t read category. Not because I was snooty, just because I’d never had a reason to. Can you believe I was a category virgin? But, I was in a “Maya Banks writes it, therefore I read it” frame of mind, so I went ahead and read those Desires. And wow. Wow. I loved them so much. The angst! The passion! To this day they are still some of my favorites.

So that’s how it all started, how I got sucked into the Harlequin world. I blame it on Maya Banks.

For the next two years I continued to read the occasional Desire that interested me, sticking to that line because that was all I knew. Oh, and a few Mills & Boon Medical romances, because hot Doctors and babies. Until two things happened:

1) I became plugged into the online romance community. Omigod what a cornucopia of romance analysis! This is when I discovered that amongst romance readers Harlequins were given the same weight as standalones. I know, shocking. I began to read reviews of HQ’s on AAR and Dear Author. I read PhD dissertation-level posts, dissecting the Harlequin Presents line. I couldn’t believe the care and attention taken with comparing vintage Harlequin to present day Harlequin. It filled my soul seeing these smart, smart ladies not turning their noses up at HQ but instead embracing them with fangirl fervor.

And the second thing…

2) Scribd. I joined Scribd a little over a year ago, back when they were still an all you can eat Harlequin romance buffet. Back before they decided to jettison those voracious romance readers who were eating them out of house and home. In the spring, summer, fall of 2015 I entered “The Harlequin Zone”. I read HPs (Harlequin Presents) like they were going out of style, Desires, Superromance and more Medical Romance than was healthy. Scribd had all the things! And then I got on Twitter and chatted incessantly with other diehard Harlequin lovers and life was wonderful, until, you know, Scribd dropped most of their Harlequins. Gasp! And then I dropped Scribd. Never fear, I still love my HQs, but having that scope, that depth of HQs to choose from at my fingertips (Janice Kay Johnson, Molly O’Keefe, Carol Marinelli…) was a real awakening for me and I’m sad for readers that it’s gone.

Here’s what I learned:

The angst factor, the pure romance of a Harlequin is cracktastic. If I’m in a hurry and want a palate cleanser in between two sweeping epics, Harlequin fits the bill. I can devour an HP in a night and the next day, a superromance over a weekend. There’s so much choice. There’s a line for every mood you’re in, every type of romance you prefer. Sometimes I want an inspy, sometimes a Michelle Willingham Viking historical—whatever I want, it’s all there! By now I’ve tried: Harlequin Presents, Medical Romance, Superromance, Intrigue, Nocturne, Kimani, HQ Historical and Inspirational. Strangely, I’d never tried a Blaze. I always meant to, and now they’re closing that line. So of course I feel guilt for being part of the problem. Sigh. Although I’m truly excited to see what HQ rolls out in place of Blaze…

With so much choice, it can be tricky making that final decision on what to read. Analysis paralysis. We all know the quality can be uneven in HQ. But hey, that can happen with any publisher and with any subgenre. The trick with HQ is finding the authors and the lines you like. Mix and match until you find that HQ sweet spot. Awesome cover/title impulse buys notwithstanding, I get my main recs from my fellow Harlequin lovers via Twitter: @willaful, @MissBates, @sonomalass and @lexxicallahan. This last winter (or fall?) @MissBates rec’d Snowbound by Janice Kay Johnson (we were going through a Superromance phase). An oldie but a goodie. I couldn’t find it on Scribd and was too lazy to pursue it from the library, but luckily I found it on Amazon, so *click*. It was terrific. Great depth. We all went crazy for it. So much fun. :)

What keeps me coming back for more Harlequin despite all the shiny out there, are authors like Sarah M. Anderson and her RITA nominated book, The Nanny Plan. The heroine is half Native American, a young woman trying to make her way in the world, while at the same time reaching back to help her family and community on the reservation where she grew up. I was so happy to read such a modern tale about a tech Billionaire who falls for a woman who is NOT WHITE. I’m so hungry for more PoC in my Harlequin romance. I’d love to see Harlequin thinking of the future and opening their lines to all ethnicities. I think a smart step in the right direction would be the disbanding of the Kimani line and the inclusion of those books in preexisting lines. I want all of the terrific PoC authors AND characters already in Kimani to stay, but reshuffled to fit into every line, everywhere, not segregated like they are now to a line that isn’t even marketed to “me”. This way those fabulous Kimani books are sold to everyone, not just targeted towards an African-American demographic. That type of racially targeted marketing is now becoming old fashioned, not what twenty-first century readers are wanting. Harlequins are like an old blanket I like to curl up in, the sameness is comforting, but I also enjoy keeping up to date with the latest fabrics and colors. So it would make me happy to see something fresh, modern and forward-thinking going on in HQ, something in alignment with RWA’s new standards on Diversity.

My personal conclusion about Harlequin:

Sometimes you want your romance to be about the romance and that’s it. No pesky sub plots, villages of secondary characters, prologues and epilogues. Sometimes you want a quick story you can potentially finish in a day.

And when you pick up a Harlequin you know exactly what you’re getting into. No surprises. Whatever mood you’re in, Harlequin has that story. They provide every trope under the sun. Secret baby trope? They’ve got it. You want a friends to lovers trope combined with marriage of convenience, he knocks her up and she suffers from amnesia? Harlequin has you covered. I love how you can typically tell what you’re getting from a Harlequin by glancing at which line it is, the title and the cover- you don’t really need to read the blurb, the title is basically a condensed blurb (ex – The Italian Surgeon’s Secret Baby). How cool is that?

I need to send Maya Banks a thank you card…

So tell me, what is your Harlequin discovery story? Which lines do you read? What authors are your favorites? Are you disappointed with Scribd too, or is it just me?

Let the recs fly!

And…How do you get your Harlequin? The library? Target? By mail? Mainly ebook now? I’m curious…

Michele Mills teaches High School English to unruly teenagers and enjoys cooking for her husband and two sons. Die for You, the first book in her new post-apocalyptic series from Samhain, is available now. You can find her pretending to be professional on both Twitter and Facebook.

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