We’re here to talk about the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s 2021 list of the best romantic comedy books of the year. This past year has been a stressful time for many, and stressful times calls for comfort reading; what could be more comforting than a good rom com? But what qualities do the best romantic comedy books share?
The thing that most comes across in the comments from our judges is that sense of fun. It doesn’t have to be laugh-out-loud, rolling-about-on-the-floor funny, but a sense of fun has to come through. They’ve got to have something in them that lifts the spirits, makes you want to keep reading, and takes you into the world of the author for a little while. That’s true of all the books that have made it onto the shortlist, I think.
‘Romantic comedy’ is only one kind of book recognised in the 2021 Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards. Can you tell us briefly about the other categories?
The most popular one to enter is ‘contemporary romantic novel’, followed by ‘historical romance.’ We’ve had to tweak our ‘fantasy romance’ award; you probably remember the time when everything was werewolves and vampires in that category, but now it’s the magical realism element that tends to feature strongly plus any other supernatural element. Then we have the ‘romantic thriller’, which is a fairly broad new category.
‘Romantic saga’ is quite hard to identify—it’s not a historical novel. Saga writers are very passionate about that! They felt they needed a separate award, to specify that they are a genre all of their own. And then the ‘shorter romantic novel’ category is all books over 30,000 words but less than 70,000. The ‘debut romantic novel’ category explains itself, and that’s just to highlight the fact that it’s such a huge thing when your first book comes out. Also, this year we’re delighted to be introducing an extra section for the ever-popular books that feature Christmas, Hanukkah, and other winter holiday themes.
Personally I think that romantic comedy novels are the hardest ones to judge, because our senses of humour are all so different.
I do find it so interesting the way that Romance, the genre, has such well-defined sub- and micro-genres. Do you think that people who read romantic comedy books will tend to stay within that rom-com world, and historical romance types stay within theirs?
Possibly, for a little while. But I think we change as we move through life, don’t we? We have different tastes as we get older. Something that might appeal to us at twenty will leave us cold at forty, and so on. So, yes, for a while we will gravitate to a certain type of book. At the moment I am focusing on magical realism—that’s what I write, and read—and books with older protagonists.
That’s one of the things our panel of readers love—we have around 300 of them—they love having a big range of books to judge. Because it gives them an opportunity to read things they wouldn’t normally pick up. It’s been very good to expand our horizons, reading-wise.
Brilliant. We’ll let’s discuss the book the Romantic Novelists’ Association has declared the best romantic comedy of 2021: Sunny Days and Sea Breezes by Carole Matthews.
This book is set on the Isle of Wight, and the characters and her descriptions of the different places are as warm and vibrant as ever. I think, especially in these times when we’ve all been starved of holidays by the seaside, Carole has given us some much-needed escapism and hope for future adventures of our own.
I’ve seen Carole described as “the master of upbeat fiction.”
All her books are just so, so much fun. She’s written so many of them, and they are all so well-written. She does loads of research into the settings. She has a husband called Lovely Kev who goes with her and helps with the research, there are pictures of them everywhere!
Romantic comedy authors, particularly, seem to have very warm personalities. And that comes over in their writing. They want to pass on this feeling of fun, don’t they? And warmth.
Carole Matthews is a real RNA star.
A worthy winner. Now the runners up. Let’s step through the other books on your 2021 best romantic comedy shortlist, starting with Trisha Ashley’s The Garden of Forgotten Wishes. This is a rom com set in Lancashire, England, in which the main character is a gardener.
All of Trisha’s books hit the spot. She’s got a fan base that spans generations. She takes us somewhere else—and I think a garden is the place we all like to be in the summertime, especially one in the process of developing into an even better place. Also, it’s great to read about someone bravely making a new start. This is a well-loved theme but Trisha always puts a fresh spin on her stories.
Trisha’s descriptions are quite amazing. She posts on Twitter and Facebook a lot, often just a little snippet about the weather where she is, and they are just magical—she’s very lyrical in her writing. And she’s got a gentle irony too.
You’ve touched on this already, but romantic comedies are particularly good at giving us a glimpse at another lifestyle, right?
Yes, they cover so many different issues. Take Love, Actually, the film—the number of different relationships covered in that… it’s mind expanding, really, to think about other people of all ages and backgrounds, different issues like grief, family break-ups… all these things are woven into a lot of these books, and help people understand and process what they are going through themselves.
An exercise in empathy.
Exactly. A good writer will take you through something you’ve not experienced, but also get right into where you’ve been hurt yourself. I think you can tell quite quickly, in the first chapter, if a book is going to touch you personally. Not all books need to do that, obviously. There are different ways of reading. But romantic comedies, I think, need to get right in there straight away and touch your heart—you need to feel the humour, the fun, the pain. All those things are mixed together. You’re in it for the ride.
“Romantic comedies need to get right in there straight away and touch your heart—you need to feel the humour, the fun, the pain”
Also, they’re very personality-led. You don’t necessarily have to like the main character, but they do have to be fully formed. You’ve got to root for them in some way. You’ve got to want them to get to the end—if not a happily-ever-after, then at least what we call a ‘happy for now.’ You know. Like: it’s going to be okay for a little while. Rom com books tend not to have everybody die at the end, in other words.
Got it. Shall we discuss The Switch by Beth O’Leary next?
Yes. It’s absolutely brilliant. There’s an older protagonist and a much younger one—grandmother and granddaughter—and they swap lives for a little while. One part is set in a village, and it takes you there immediately, and the other part is set in London—so it’s a complete comparison of settings and age group.
There are so many issues in there—grief, loss, friendship, new relationships and the traumas of old relationships. It’s extremely well written.
It’s her follow-up to The Flatshare. But not a sequel.
Yes. The Flatshare did very well.
The next book on the rom com shortlist is One Winter’s Night by Kiley Dunbar. Why is it one of the best romantic comedy books of 2021?
The crisp, wintery atmosphere in this book sparkles and shines all the way through and the relationships between the characters involve plenty of secrets to keep the reader intrigued. Again, the setting is very important. I love Stratford, and Kiley’s story takes you right into the theatre scene. She really knows her stuff when it comes to Shakespeare and his home town; a very talented writer.
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Kiley has written about Stratford before, and is using a lot of the same characters, but this is a standalone. That can be said of a lot of these books—they might be in a series, but especially when they’re up for awards judged by readers who don’t know the background, they have to work as standalone books.
Our next two books are each set at Christmas time. Is that unusual?
Last year, particularly, Christmas books were very popular. I think because none of us knew whether we would be getting a Christmas or not until the very last minute. So a lot of people wanted to read cosy winter stories. Although Christmas ones are always very popular.
Yes, I suppose Christmas Day serves as a natural climax. Emotions are always heightened around it. Plus there’s the hygge factor.
I’m still reading the Christmas books now, just because I like that cosy feeling. And funnily enough, we’re introducing our new Christmas-slash-winter holiday category right at the start of summer! These books often come in late due to publication dates but it’s never too early to read about the festivities.
Tell me about the romantic comedy book Someday at Christmas, by Lizzie Byron—which is a pen name of the YA author Tanya Byrne.
Oh, think the cosiest Christmas scenes ever, delicious food, nostalgia, unusual characters and just general feelgood magic! Set in a department store and bursting with sparkle. Lovely!
And then there’s Christmas at the Island Hotel, by Jenny Colgan. It’s part of her Mure series, set on an island between Scotland and Norway.
Jenny is a very popular author and you can see why when you read this latest festive treat. It’s very atmospheric and gives you that lovely, chilly feeling whether you want to wrap yourself in a blanket and drink hot chocolate. That’s really appealing to lots of people
Even if we didn’t do it in person last Christmas, we it’s still nice to remember all the things that we like about it and hope for the for the next time.
Jenny Colgan is equally talented at the summer and the winter books. A lot of authors do both every year. They always do a summer and a winter one, so you’ve always got that contrast. It’s quite hard for them because they have to write it at the wrong time of year. They’re imagining Christmas when they’re sitting on the beach, or in the garden in the sun.
That’s funny! I didn’t know that. Is that the usual rhythm, then, for a romance writer? To be publishing twice a year?
It depends on the publisher. Some prefer their authors to just focus on one book a year, some make it clear that two are welcome or even essential. My books with harper Fiction always come out in September but other publishers— particularly the digital ones—operate in other ways. Fans then know there’s a new book coming soon, and the momentum carries it all along. Either way is fine, there are pros and cons. Also, it depends how fast the authors are prepared to write. Our styles are very different. Some need to do a lot more research, depending on what sort of book they’re working on. So it’s very variable.
Are there any fashions in romantic fiction at the moment?
It’s difficult to say, but generally I think the current crop of books have more depth, more emotion, more interwoven and varied relationships, which can involve a diverse range of protagonists; any age group, any combination of girl-meets-boy, boy-meets-boy or girl-meets-girl. There can be a combination of several themes running in parallel and crossing over. There doesn’t have to be just one relationship taking centre stage all the way through.
As an organisation with more than 1000 members, we’re trying hard to be more inclusive. Diversity is very important to the RNA. We aim to encourage writers from all backgrounds, ages, races, colours, sexualities to join us and want everyone to feel welcome in the RNA. For this reason we’re currently trialling a listening exercise to find out how our members really feel about this situation. We’re always open to ideas as to how we can be more inclusive.
Going back to the short-list, I think we have a good variety of relationships, settings and backgrounds. So the trend is more depth, if there is a trend. Oh, and possibly even more warmth and cosiness!
That’s what we need at the moment, and it will carry us into next year. Next year’s books will all have been written during the pandemic, but after that, who knows? They might go completely off the rails! But we will keep supporting and celebrating romance in all its forms
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