Approximately half my reading this year was sci-fi or fantasy so I wanted to talk about those in their own post but didn’t want to leave out some of the other terrific books I read this year, so this is a catch-all for all the non-YA, non-SFF I loved. This year I got back into reading more romance novels after a several year break and it was one of the best decisions I could have made. I love seeing what this genre is doing as it starts to embrace different voices and perspectives and the sheer variety of work that is available. There really is something for everyone and the focus on growth and love in many forms was exactly what I wanted to read.
1. Agents Irish and Whiskey trilogy by Layla Reyne This trilogy took over a weekend for me because I did not want to put it down. The mystery portion of the books is solid, if not a little overcomplicated by the end, but it’s the romance that sells it. Aiden was told to take Jamie under his wing and train him for fieldwork, while also enlisting his help to discover the true story surrounding his husband’s death. Despite his fears and hesitation, Aiden falls for Jamie (who already had a bit of a crush on him that was only enhanced by actually getting to know him) and that progression from “it’s only a physical thing, I’m not attached” to “I want to spend the rest of my life with this person” is perfectly done. Their banter and dynamic is terrific and you can’t help but fall in love with these two characters and root for them even when one of them is being dumb (in a good, in-character way) and you want to yell at them. It is so incredibly satisfying to read and there is a bonus short story of their wedding available for free to look forward to once you reach the end of their journey.
2. Forbidden Hearts Trilogy by Alisha Rai I started this trilogy at exactly the right time. I needed Livvy’s story and stubbornness and mistaken belief that strength meant never being weak and that shoving down all your emotions was the way to handle life. I love the romance and the work she and Nicholas had to do in order to make their relationship strong again but it was her journey in particular that unexpectedly brought me to tears. And that’s a trend that held through in all three novels, it was the women and their journeys that I loved most of all and the romance was a (wonderfully done) bonus. They had good friends and their own baggage to deal with and they refused to take sole responsibility for fixing the men they loved. I love the depth the rest of the family was given and the love that was so clearly present in all forms throughout the book. Grandpa John is the very best and I was cheering for him getting his whole family back just as much as I was cheering for the love stories. It’s touching, it’s hot as hell, and will make you run through the full spectrum of emotions out of love for these fantastic characters.
3. Tequila Sunrise by Layla Reyne I know this is technically considered part of the Agents Irish and Whiskey series but the main characters are different and I love Mel so she gets her own entry on this list. I will forever love couples with badass ladies and men who are utterly delighted by the fact that their significant other can kick their ass. This whole novella is Mel being the talented and trained former special agent in charge that she is and protecting the people she loves while getting a glimpse at the key moments in her relationship with Danny that took place during the timeline of the main trilogy. It’s sexy and suspenseful and just plain fun.
4. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng While there is a small mystery around which the story revolves, it’s never the point. Instead, it’s a focused look at one family shrouded in secrets and insolation who never really found a place they could feel settled. But instead of talking, they held all their pain inside until it made them lash out at each other. But it’s also about healing and the process it will take. Lydia’s death changed the family forever and they’ll never be the same but in some ways it brought them together in a new understanding. It’s a melancholy, bittersweet novel that tugs at your soul and makes you think about all the things you keep to yourself and how that limits the way others understand you.
5. Heart Trouble by Jae Jae writes very cute lesbian romances and after two books, I am definitely a fan. While both were great, this is the one I suspect I’ll be going back to again and again. I can’t resist a good soulbond story that this delivers in every way possible. There’s the strange unraveling of what was happening, the inherent vulnerabilities that come from sharing emotions with someone else, the awkward “oh no I thought about the other in a less than platonic way” moment, and of course, falling in love and a happily ever after. It’s very character-focused and you really couldn’t help but root for them to get together as they became closer. But there was also a strong emphasis on Laleh’s relationship with her family and their central role in her life and supportive female friendships for both Laleh and Hope, which I will always appreciate in a romance novel. They got to be developed characters outside of their love and it made the book shine beyond the use of the well-loved tropes.
6. The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey I loved this start to a new mystery series set in Bombay in the 1920s. Purveen is the only female lawyer in Bombay, having spent most of her life being told what she couldn’t do because she was a woman and treated as insignificant. She was too ambitious and too modern for her husband, who she ran away from after she found him cheating on her, and now free of him and armed with a new law degree, she’s determined to make her mark and look out for other women who are similarly trapped by their gender and life circumstances. While working for her father’s law firm, she takes the case of three widows whose inheritance agreements feel off to her and fights for them to have the money to survive independently and raise their children in peace. The setting is vibrant and comes to life, the characters and the emphasis on the relationships women form with each other was right up my alley and made me ready for book two in the series.
7. Marriage of Unconvenience by Chelsea M. Cameron I am all about trope-y, contemporary romances and wow did this deliver. If you’re a fan of friends-to-lovers stories or marriages of convenience, this one will make you smile. Best friends Cara and Loren get married so Loren gets access to her inheritance and she can loan Cara the money for medical school and as this is a romance novella, feelings develop along the way that suddenly make their marriage feel very real. It is absolutely adorable and Cara and Lo’s love for each other is beautiful and precious in both platonic and romantic form.
8. Persuasion by Jane Austen I’m working my way through Jane Austen novels and this was easily my favorite since Pride and Prejudice. I love stories with characters who love each other but aren’t ready or mature enough to make a relationship last. Normally, the story ends before they are able to mature and reunite but that’s exactly where this story picks up. Anne was not the popular member of the Elliott family. She broke off her engagement to Wentworth at another’s strong suggestion and they hadn’t seen each other for several years until they ended up back in the same village. It’s as politely messy as society would allow and the gulf between what was in the past and the present was a consistent ache for Anne. As they got to know each other again and let go of some of their old wounds, they found that the love for each other was still there but now better able to be appreciated and fought for. Wentworth’s letter is a classic and “I am half agony, half hope” is such a terrific line to describe the hopeful longing and pining state he was in so it’s no surprise that it’s the one people remember long after they finish. It’s a quintessentially Austen combination commentary on English society at the time and a beautiful love story and it needs more recognition.
9. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang This gender-swapped Pretty Woman features a lead with Asperger’s who hires a male escort to help her enjoy sex more after a few bad encounters have left her puzzled. Stella feels broken because she can’t seem to get the relationships in her life to work out and hopes Michael can help “fix” her. They instantly connect and Michael is kind and understanding of what Stella needs from him even when he doesn’t understand why she’s approaching sex and relationships the way she is. However, from the start, neither is being fully honest with each other and it leads to a lot of fumbles and miscommunications before they eventually get it right. I will always prefer romances where the internal journey of the character is as important as the romantic development and that’s exactly what this book gives me. Stella learns to embrace her full self and realize that there’s nothing wrong with her the way she is. She may relate to the world a little differently than everyone else but she was never broken. And Michael learns to overcome his fears of becoming his dad and go after his dreams. They are two people who helped each other be better and happened to fall in love along the way and that’s how it should be.
10. A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole Royal romances aren’t typically my go-to in the genre but so many people were raving about this book that I had to give it a try. And I’m glad I did! I loved Nedi. I loved her initial reaction to the emails she was receiving, telling her she was betrothed to an African prince, I loved her passion for epidemiology, I loved her learning to let people in, and I especially loved her gaining a family. I will forever be a fan of male leads in romance books who appreciate the fact that the woman they fall in love with is smart and strong and who will also admit when they are wrong. Thabiso wasn’t afraid to let Nedi take the lead when she was more familiar with a situation than he was but he was also there to offer support when she felt out of her depth. I loved the initial dynamic they forged but I love the one they remade for themselves by the end more. Both of them grew and adapted to the idea of a life with each other and being able to see that growth was important. I really loved Alyssa Cole’s writing style and will definitely be reading the next book in this series.
Honorable Mentions: The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory, I Hate Everyone But You by Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn, No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal, Inn Boonsboro trilogy by Nora Roberts, Take the Lead by Alexis Daria