UNDERCOVER BROMANCE took everything I liked about THE BROMANCE BOOK CLUB and put it into a book that featured a plot I actually appreciated. It’s one of my favorite things – a second-in-series that is better than the first in distinct and measurable ways! (You know who else did this and continues to do it? Alyssa Cole. Every book in the Reluctant Royals series is better than the one before in ways that you can actually describe and quantify. So good!)
Here’s the thing. I liked THE BROMANCE BOOK CLUB – obviously, I liked it enough to pick up the sequel. But you’ll notice I didn’t write about it here. I loved a lot of things about that first book but there’s no getting over the fact that it happened to be a romance novel whose primary plot line involved people not communicating with each other, which is my second-least favorite central plot theme. (My least favorite is secret baby books, and I could yell about THAT for an hour (and did, once, on a fairly memorable author panel a couple of years ago, apologies to the entire audience who expected a VERY DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE)). I just need more external conflict in my books than ‘I can’t bring myself to talk about something’. So. With that said, UNDERCOVER BROMANCE delivers. It’s got the stuff I liked in the first book – the romance book club! The analysis and interpretation of tropes and plots by unexpected characters! The really great side characters (one of whom from the first book is the heroine of this book, actually)! And then it adds in a plot with plenty going on. There’s a villain! Action-y bits! A full-on naked tackle of a bad guy! I don’t even usually LIKE romantic suspense, to be honest, but the best thing about this series is how inside-baseball it is for people who love romance. Lyssa Kay Adams knows her tropes, and she’s using them in really meta ways, which I love. It’s a sly breaking of the fourth wall to find men discussing their own toxic masculinity, talking out loud about the dark moment, and understanding when and how to (and who’s going to) make the grand gesture.
I liked a lot of stuff in this book – the chickens! The bar manager! The action sequences! The sex scenes! – but I want to talk about one moment that particularly stood out for me. A thing I really, really love to see in romances is men physically supporting each other. I wrote about it in THE WORST BEST MAN, and there’s another great moment in UNDERCOVER BROMANCE that features the hero’s male friends literally hugging him while he’s upset, something we rarely see. (PS: the absolute master of this is Grace Burrowes, who wrote a scene between a historical hero and one of his male friends involving a hug that I STILL think about after reading it YEARS ago.) Teaching men that touching each other is okay is a Big Thing for me – it’s just one of my personal pressure points – and so I get really excited about seeing it in popular fiction. I have a lot of thoughts about genre fiction being the zeitgeist for cultural change – if things are normalized in the fiction you read for escapist fantasy, it’s the first step to normalizing it in your everyday view of the world, because you recognize it as the way things ‘should be.’ That’s probably a talk for another time, though – maybe another author panel!
My only quibble with this otherwise great book is how relentlessly hetero it is. The group of ‘alpha males’ invested in romance novels is really good about their language and their approach to stuff – there’s no uncomfortable joking, which is great (and says something about the bare minimum of expectations we have, unfortunately). But. In something with such a deft analysis of romance novels and the culture that surrounds them, I would love to see a little more awareness of what’s missing. There’s absolutely no LGBTQIA+ characters identified in the text, which means there is no opportunity for Adams’ very smart characters to take a moment to reflect on how traditional romances don’t always reflect modern reality, or the changes in the genre that have come about more recently to showcase diversity. Every book the book club reads is m/f – which is fine! – but gosh, I’d love to see them notice that others exist, because there’s plenty of talk about them deciding which book to read. All that said – this book is from a traditional publisher, and traditional publishers are notoriously a little behind on stuff like this, so I GET why it’s not in there and nobody noticed that maybe it could be. I just wish somebody had said something. This book is so good about noticing so much about romance that it feels like a noticeable omission.