This is the year I really got into the romance genre in a big way. Nothing brought me as much comfort and happiness as I read more of authors I’d previously enjoyed and found several more (often with extensive backlists) for me to read through. It’s been a tiring week for many of these authors as they’ve dealt with bullshit from their major professional organization but it’s so clear to me that these authors represent a new way forward for this genre and I am thrilled to be getting into it at this moment in time.
1. Reluctant Royals by Alyssa Cole The first book in the series (A Princess in Theory) made my list last year and if possible, I liked books two and three even more and loved the side stories in the two associated novellas. I couldn’t choose between them all for this list, so I’m including them all. A Duke by Default gave me a main character I absolutely adored in Portia and an internal journey for her that I loved even more than I loved her relationship with Tav (which is also very good because I am weak for grumpy people falling in love with someone who is pure sunshine). I loved watching her gain confidence in herself and her abilities as she realized she had ADHD and used the tools she had available to find a way to work with it instead of constantly fighting against it. That journey to self confidence was also what I loved about A Prince on Paper. Nya fighting for herself and pushing back against her abusive upbringing was incredible to read and you couldn’t help but cheer for her every step of the way. I adore this series and the intermingled friendships that formed as friend groups merged and became stronger with the new additions. It is full of tropes I love, incredible women and the men who love them, and so many moments of growth for everyone involved. No one is the same at the end of their book as they were in the beginning and the courage and work for each of them to get to their better place was everything I love about romance books. None of it was easy but all of it was worth it. Growth and healing are processes that are made easier with a strong support system and that is what this series provides in abundance.
2. The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai You know a book and its main character resonated with you when you kind of want to fight all the people who didn’t like her. I perhaps related too strongly to Rhi’s tendency to throw up emotional barriers around herself and run away at the first hint that she might be hurt again all while refusing to allow herself any sort of emotional expression for fear that it made her look weak. It may not be the healthiest long-term response but it was a survival response that kept her going after an emotionally abusive relationship with her boss nearly left her blacklisted from the industry she loved. I enjoyed Rhi’s relationship with Samson and how easy it was for them to care about each other despite Rhi’s insistence that it was only going to be a casual sex and mutually beneficial work arrangement because those are romance tropes I will fall for every single time, but as always, I loved the emotional journey Rhi went through most of all. I loved her finding the strength to speak out against her former boyfriend and lending her voice to the other accusations against him. I loved her realization that she had a whole lot of people who loved her and had her back, that she didn’t have to fight and go through life alone. It was incredibly rewarding and the perfect example of why I love Alisha Rai’s books so much. Her heroines are all so complex and have been scarred by their past but find ways to heal and thrive regardless and she always manages to throw in a line or two that are exactly what I needed to hear at that moment in time.
3. Tempest by Beverly Jenkins Beverly Jenkins is legendary in the romance world and this book made the reason abundantly clear. I am not going to write a better summation of why I loved this book than the first line of KJ Charles’s Goodreads review, “Honestly, any book where the heroine semi accidentally shoots the hero and then tells him off for not accepting her apology with sufficient grace is a winner with me.”. Regan is an absolute joy to read about from moment one. She’s incredibly competent and ready to defend herself from perceived bandits and willing to apologize when she messes up but also demand respect and basic human decency from others when they fall short. I love her immediate desire to nurture Anna’s good, curious mind and protect her from people who would force her into a strict definition of what a “good woman” should be that doesn’t allow for either childhood or self-sufficiency. I love a good grumpy guy who falls head over heels for a kind, strong woman despite his best attempts to keep her at arms length and Colt more than delivers. The character dynamics were everything I could want and I loved the look at the Wyoming frontier at a time when women were starting to be allowed to vote and formally shape their society.
4. Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert After a near-death experience, Chloe decides to make a more exciting life for herself by creating a checklist to follow. First of all, I love that her solution was to choose a handful of things and insist that she’d be a more exciting person if she completed the list. It’s very me and I love her for it. Second, I love romances where both people have past issues to overcome and are actively taking steps to do so and this book celebrates the process of working through your trauma in order to find a fuller life for yourself. Third, this book is really adorable. There’s a rescued cat, flirty emails, and a whole book of two characters finding someone who sees and cherishes them for all they are. There is so much care that she manages to convey between Chloe and Red in ways both big and small. They’re not perfect and both mess up, but they apologize and work to do better. Sometimes their sore spots come into conflict and it’s painful but it’s also an opportunity for each to grow and learn for the future. Finally, this book is very hot. Hibbert is very good at her sex scenes and the chemistry she managed to convey on the page was explosive.
5. Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon This is how you write a compelling romance novella. For a book that’s only 106 pages, it spends time on the characters and who they are as people while also navigating who they could be together. You really get a sense of Alexis and Trisha as individuals and their own emotional journeys and the whole thing is infused with a gentleness and care for these characters (which seems to be a Weatherspoon trademark from the 3 other stories I’ve read of hers since reading Treasure). I also really loved that Trisha was never villainized for being a stripper, especially since that’s where she and Alexis initially meet. I may be a little confused at the concept of New Adult as a classification but the college setting really works for this story as so much centers around these women growing into their identities. You’ll simultaneously want to linger in this very sweet story and be unable to put it down because it’s such a pleasant world to be apart of.
6. American Dreamer/American Fairytale by Adriana Herrera I’m only halfway through this quartet of books (the final book comes out in March) but I have absolutely fallen in love with these characters and their worlds. This is one of my favorite chosen families, the bonds these boys have forged with each other and the different ways they express it are perfect. It feels real and lived in and as good as the romances are so far, it never loses sight of those core connections. With the first book centering around a chef (and his boyfriend who works in a library) and the second centering around someone working at a nonprofit (who stressed me out by falling in love with a major donor), I feel like they are existing at a perfect intersection of my interests. The love Herrera has put in to her descriptions of the Caribbean and her character’s love for their different islands really sets this book apart. You see her background in social work and activism come through in the way the characters talk about dignity and telling their stories through their chosen fields. I love these romances and the way they feel unique to both Nesto and Milo and the way they interact with the world as well as what they’re looking for in relationships. These men and their respective partners aren’t interchangeable but full and interesting characters in their own right, which will carry forward into future books and widen their family in terrific ways. This series is incredibly and compassionately written and have made pretty much any of Herrera’s future work an instant buy for me.
7. Syncopation by Anna Zabo It turns out that I really love books about bands and relationship aside, I really enjoyed Twisted Wishes and watching them grow and succeed despite their evil villain manager. I love the family these four have made with each other and the various friendships we see within it. This is not technically a romance because half of the pairing in this book is aromantic but it does center around the relationship between Ray and Zav and how it builds to something incredibly special that’s right for them. I love the progression of their relationship from a skeptical beginning to growing friendship (especially Zav’s unwavering belief in Ray’s musical abilities) to a friends-with-benefits dom/sub sexual relationship to an intended, committed partnership and once it really started kicking off, I didn’t want to put the book down. The BDSM elements are handled very thoughtfully with a great deal of explanation for Ray, who was new to it all, but also for readers who may be less familiar with it. As it should be, the emphasis was always on consent and making sure that these characters both felt listened to and like their opinions and enthusiasm mattered. If anyone needed proof that consent and frank discussion about sexual needs could be sexy, pick up this book because it’s incredibly hot. Ray and Zav’s dynamic is handled so beautifully and I loved reading about what they built together, even if I don’t quite have the terminology to explain it.
8. Charm of Magpies trilogy by KJ Charles This book feels like it’s recommended everywhere in romance circles (as is Charles as an author) and I get why. The combination of magical mystery and enemies to lovers romance in the first book work together perfectly and the second and third books build about the relationship that Lucien and Stephan have started all while providing their own magical mysteries. It takes place in a fantasy version of Victorian England, which means there would be severe consequences if their relationship is discovered, although Lucien’s title and money helps shield them a bit. But the greatest jeopardy never comes from the illegality of their relationship but from their own insecurities and personalities. While they may be able to unleash great power together (and some really cool migrating tattoos that roam whenever they have sex), they have a hard time trusting in the permanance of their relationship and the restrictions and expectations placed upon them. It’s an understandable problem that Charles works through beautifully and with a clear view of where both characters are coming from that creates a compelling, sexy love story and made me want to seek out more of her books.
9. Dance With Me by Alexis Daria Combining my favorite character types with mutual pining and dancing was pretty much guaranteed to be a win for me. Natasha is so determined to be self-reliant and prove the voice in her head (who sounds an awful lot like her emotionally abusive mother) wrong. She feels like a constant failure who will always come up short and never be able to make it on her own so she works herself extremely hard and keeps everyone a little at arm’s length. Dmitri is similarly scared of failure and it holds him back from going after the things he really wants. They’ve had a casual friends-with-benefits situation going for a couple of years but both of them really wants more and will not admit it. Then Natasha has to move in with Dmitri while her apartment is temporarily uninhabitable. There’s denial and slow reveals and personal growth and so much dancing and it is glorious.
10. Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan I’m not sure I read any book this year that was as much fun as this one. Violetta was looking to engage in some petty theft in order to survive after being abruptly fired by her employer right before she was due to receive retirement benefits and in the process, found a woman who would inspire her and love her and give her the world. And if in this process of falling in love, one Terrible Nephew experienced consequences for his actions, it would be even sweeter. Bertrice’s plans to summarily evict said Terrible Nephew from his lodgings after he refused to pay and tried to foist the bill on her are a complete delight to read. The images of letting a bunch of geese into his room or a very bad caroling choir following him down the street are just too good and satisfying. They couldn’t rewrite the rules of society to make things more equitable or until the end, bring Terrible Nephew to justice for his arrogance and entitlement that lead him to assault at least one woman but they could sure try. It’s such a gentle romance as Violetta comes to accept that maybe she can have good things and trust in Bertrice’s affections and it warmed my heart to watch both their worlds become a little bigger and brighter through falling in love with each other.
Honorable Mentions: Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole, From Scratch by Katrina Jackson, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite, Hither Page by Cat Sebastian, All Out anthology by various authors (edited by Saundra Mitchell)