Ah, the romance novel: omnipresent in book stores, often mocked, covers featuring heated embraces, plots that seem repeated over and over. Or are they? Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, co-creators of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog , provide a fan's overview, critique, and love affair of romance novels with Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels.

As may be appropriate to its subject, Beyond Heaving Bosoms approaches the romance novel with more than a little humor. There are numerous references to the heroine's "Magic Hoo Hoo" and the hero's "Wang of Mighty Lovin.'" You'll learn about "Cringe-Worthy Plot Devices We Know and Love." If there's a possible pun or double entendre, odds are there'll be a footnote verifying that it is a pun or meant "that way." And several games let readers create their own romance novel.

Along with the silliness is a pretty good overview of the romance novel genre. After a brief description of Old Skool and New Skool romance novels (Old Skool having a disturbing amount of rapist heroes; a whole chapter is devoted to this), Wendell and Tan get into the inner workings of the genre: types of heroines (Smart-Mouthed Cynic, Ingenue, Too Stupid to Live) and heroes (more anatomy than personality); fun and/or painful plots; why it's not chick porn, and why the sex is so hot; why their covers suck; and the possible future of the genre. The authors put plenty of their opinions into these commentaries, and they also have interviews with several romance novel authors and even a male romance cover model (sorry, not Fabio).

Beyond Heaving Bosoms is an informative and irreverent read. I would have preferred a little more analysis of the subgenres in romance novels (When did single parents become big in romance novels? How varied is the quality in serial series like Harlequin? What new trends became big, or faded away, in the New Skool?), and the numerous games at the end (romance novel board game! romance novel Mad Libs! romance novel Twist-A-Plot!) got a bit too silly and took up far too much space. Even with those, Beyond Heaving Bosoms contradicts some cliches about romance novels while admitting to and embracing others -- and has a bitchin' time doing it.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch