Like so many others, romance novels helped get me through this terrible year. The comfort in a promised happily ever after and stories that are extremely character-focused were something I could handle when my ability to follow complex plots was limited. Stories about healing and thriving after hardship were a reminder that better days were to come and that the future is worth fighting for. The kindness extended these characters at their lowest and the belief that they deserved happiness reminded me to extend that same kindness to myself when I was struggling. Romance was here to make me smile, to make my cry, and to make me forget everything else, if only for a little while, and live in the joy of these characters and the many I couldn’t include in this list.
But more than the books itself, it was the community that meant the most. It was a rocky start to the year as RWA continued its very public implosion but it also brought me a whole lot of new authors to follow on Twitter (which in turn brought me more recommendations and even more happiness). Their discussions on Romancelandia and where they would like to see it go in the future, feelings and analysis of current events, and their general no-nonsense attitude when it comes to dealing with outdated, often sexist, attempts to devalue the work they do educated me, made me think, and gave me hope when I needed it most.
Then the Fated Mates phonebanking and Romancing the Runoff happened and I really got to see the power of community. Out of a shared interest in stories, people joined together to turn that love into action and it was inspiring to watch. As of December 17th, Romancing the Runoff raised almost half a million dollars in a month and a half for voting rights organizations in Georgia and Fated Mates have made hundreds of thousands of phone calls and organized postcard drives for both the national election and the Georgia runoff. The enthusiasm and drive was infectious and did so much to make a never ending election feel a little more survivable. I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this corner of this community and what they have chosen to stand for.
1. Xeni by Rebekah Weatherspoon I am pretty sure that Rebekah Weatherspoon is my most read author of the year at 8 books and this was my very favorite of hers. As with all of her books, there is a grace and compassion that she extends toward her protagonists that gets me every time and then couples that with supportive friendships and truly some of the best sex scenes in the genre. I loved Xeni as a character from the little bit we got of her in Rafe and loved this particular story for her. It is a contemporary marriage of convenience plot with two bisexual leads, a whole lot of family secrets and baggage, and an incredibly sweet love story. It was a connection they never expected when they started the project (though there’s never any real animosity or bickering as they figured out their arrangement) and they were both able to find comfort and security in the other. They are both such good, kind, loyal people that you root for their happiness individually and with each other. Her books, especially her Loose Ends series, which are very connected with the Fit and Beards and Bondage trilogies, are some of the emotionally fulfilling romances I’ve read and I love their emphasis on healing and community. This book may be my favorite but really, this is just a plea for you to check out Weatherspoon’s work in general because she deserves to be a huge success. (Add to Goodreads)
2. The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon How do you not immediately love a book where three women realize their boyfriend is cheating on them with the others and instantly decide they’re going to be friends from there forward? I am in love with all three of these women and the easy friendship they struck up, it is probably my favorite trilogy setup in a very long time. This is Samiah’s story and first of all, I love that she is a Black woman developing an app that I would very much like to use. We do not talk about women in the tech world enough and that is especially true for Black women and other women of color so I appreciated that we got this look in what that means in her work life. Romance novels in general have been terrific at exploring lived experiences like this and not shying away from both the difficulties and the joys and it really brings them to life. Second, few things are more enjoyable to read than inconvenient romances. Love doesn’t always come on a timeframe and that is exactly what Samiah and Daniel found in each other. There were reasons that they should have started anything but the chemistry and attraction was undeniable and they took a chance that (of course) ultimately paid off. Sometimes we have to let our feelings take us where they will instead of shove them away and take joy when it comes and I loved watching Samiah do just that. (Add to Goodreads)
3. Take A Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert This was one of my most anticipated books of 2020 after loving Get A Life, Chloe Brown last year and it did not disappoint. I love a determined heroine who insists she doesn’t have time (or the emotional capacity) for romance and a hero with a soft heart. Throw in some fake dating and I am all the way in. But one of my favorite things about this trilogy so far (and Hibbert as an author in general) is the weight she gives to the mental health of her characters. Zaf has anxiety, including an on page panic attack, and it’s never treated as anything that makes him less desirable as a person. Dani has some issues to work through with feeling like her personality and way of approaching the world makes her fundamentally incompatible with romance and they both start to work through and address those issues. They’re never things keeping them from being together, just things to work on and with to be the best versions of themselves. It is full of compassion for these two characters at every stage of their journeys and celebrates holding the things that bring us joy and fulfillment close, which was a message we all needed this year. (Add to Goodreads)
4. Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall If you haven’t had enough fake dating, don’t worry because this book also has you covered. Luc is the son of a rockstar and enough of a mess that he’s a tabloid staple. Oliver is the son who will never live up to his parents’ expectations but he’s going to try his hardest anyway and shut out anything that might mess up that image of himself. So naturally, when Luc needs a boyfriend to convince his nonprofit’s stuffy donors to continue to support them, his friend Bridget recommends Oliver. They are both a pile of unaddressed issues and coping mechanisms disguised as reasonably functioning adults and in addition to seeing them learn to fit together, we get to see them start to heal and move past their traumas. It gets heavy in moments but never overwhelming as it all takes place alongside Luc’s absolutely ridiculous coworkers and his fantastic group of friends who have the best group chat names. Luc’s world feels real and lived in and it’s truly wonderful to see Oliver find his place in it. (Add to Goodreads)
5. Aurora Blazing by Jessie Mihalik I struggled with which list to put this book on because in addition to a truly wonderful bodyguard romance with a very interesting sci-fi setting. But it felt most like a romance in structure so it wound up here. In a world run by only a few Houses, Bianca is in a relative position of power in this world but it comes at the cost of a great deal of political maneuvering that rarely has her best interests in mind. Her name may be valuable but her needs and desires have not been and she’s had to work to reclaim her agency and power. So naturally, she doesn’t take well to being put under house arrest when there are threats against the family, especially not when her siblings are also at risk and sets off to make a difference, using all the skills she’s had to develop to survive. Ian is assigned to bring her home, putting them in close proximity for the first true amount of time as the tables are turned and she convinces him to prioritize her brother’s rescue over obeying her father and bringing her home. They are both extremely competent (always a favorite of mine) and know it, which leads to a lot of butting heads but when they work together, they make an unstoppable team. It’s a nice blend of the two genres, which made it a perfect fit for me. (Add to Goodreads)
6. Deal With the Devil by Kit Rocha Much like Aurora Blazing, Deal With the Devil could have also easily gone on my sci-fi and fantasy list and was in fact published by a sci-fi and fantasy imprint. But it is set in the same post-apocalyptic universe as the Beyond series by the same author duo (though in a very different area and doesn’t contain any overlapping characters) and they are known most as romance authors so it will wind up on this list while also being in my Hugo nominations for the year, allowing me to get the best of both worlds. On a personal level, this book has all of my favorite things. It’s got a grumpy hero falling for an idealistic heroine who makes him want to make more of a difference in the world. It’s got not just one but two different sets of found families that merge and become stronger together over the course of the book. It’s got what I am assuming is a reference to Parker on Leverage. It’s been a while since I’ve read a dystopian book and I love the way we get glimpses of what the world has become. It’s not an every-man-for-himself story but one that cares deeply about community and recognizes its import in the face of unfeeling corporate control and crumbling infrastructure. On an industry level, it brings a romance author’s understanding of what sex scenes can be and what they can do for characterizations to a different genre and I love it and hope to see more of that in the future. (Add to Goodreads)
7. Outside the Lines by Anna Zabo This is such a beautiful polyamorous romance and each component of the relationship felt full and distinct, whether it was sexual or not. Lidia and Simon are married and have an open relationship so when Simon meets and is immediately attracted to Ian, Lidia encourages them to give it a shot and though there are some bumps along the way, it leads to a happier and fuller life than any of them dared hope for initially. Their miscommunications, while never my favorite plot device, felt genuine and realistic to me and I appreciate that in its resolution, we got a thorough explanation of how Simon and Lidia’s relationship works. Zabo as an author is particularly good at guiding their readers through situations that they may or may not have any prior knowledge about and demonstrating different ways to love or different relationship structures without it ever bogging the story down and it works really well here. Ian and Simon are great together and I loved seeing them navigate their feelings but it was actually Simon and Lidia’s relationship and the metamour relationship between Ian and Lidia that propelled this to one of my favorite reads of the year. We immediately understand the warmth and intimacy that Simon and Lidia share, these two clearly adore each other and want each other’s happiness above all. Their gentle teasing and Lidia’s anger on her husband’s behalf feels real and right for an established relationship and we care about it even if it isn’t the focus of the story. Then there is the love that Ian and Lidia find for each other. Ian is gay and will never be interested in Lidia sexually but that doesn’t make the love any less valid. He instantly likes her almost as much as he likes her husband and their journey to finding family in each other was the true highlight for me. It’s my current gold standard of polyamorous romance and it’s going to be a hard one to dethrone. (Add to Goodreads)
8. The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan Historical romance is not normally my subgenre of choice (as you could probably guess from the rest of this list) but this book swept in like a warm, comforting hug. I loved the village of Wedgeford and the idea that it was a place for people from to come and find a community, regardless of their or their family’s country of origin. The rest of English society may not have loved the idea of a half-Chinese duke but in Wedgeford, he was able to find a place and people to call his. Jeremy’s story is all about carving out a space in the world to be his full self and live the life he wanted to lead and it’s incredibly satisfying (and a really excellent example of what liberation vs. compliance writing looks like in practice). But Chloe is undeniably the main draw in this book and Jeremy would have no desire to argue with that because he thinks she is the greatest. She’s meticulous and dedicated and determined to get her father the respect and fame he was cheated out of so many years ago and lets that spite fuel both of them to greatness. I love her reliance on lists to make the world feel a little more manageable and her stubborn insistence on doing everything herself rather than admit she needs help but also her willingness to let Jeremy see all of her and slowly growing comfortable with the idea that he wants to help her because he loves her and doesn’t want to see her struggle. She lets herself be loved and lets go of her fear of losing him and gives in to her wants and needs in the moment. It’s an extremely low-angst book with my favorite secret identity reveal of all time that is so rooted in love, not just for the characters but in Milan’s family history and heritage. You feel the joy that went into writing it and it made it even sweeter to read. (Add to Goodreads)
9. Bring Her On by Chelsea M. Cameron I am a simple girl. Give me a story that actually understands cheerleading and I’m in. Add in an enemies-to-lovers story from an author I love and it just gets even better. When rival cheer teams have to share a gym leading up to Nationals, Kiri is reunited with a cheer camp fling and is determined to keep her distance because she’s still mad (but Echo is also still very attractive and that doesn’t not go unnoticed) but that was clearly never going to work and the two reconnect on and off the mat. The romance is solid and reasonably low-angst once they get through their initial issues but it’s the cheerleading that sells this book for me. You can tell what a great time Cameron had revisiting their cheerleading days and it’s one of those instances of specific knowledge bringing a book to life. To be a former cheerleader is to largely be frustrated with its pop culture portrayal, which is largely stuck in times long past. And while no one but former cheerleaders will notice, I so deeply appreciated the attention to detail. Yes, the actual cheerleading matched the types of routines that are done now but more than that, they did a UCA routine at a UCA competition set in the correct location without ever needing to say the name because it wasn’t plot-relevant and if anyone was going to throw a fit about using their name, it would have been Varsity. It was a background detail at best but it was accurate and made me incredibly happy. (Add to Goodreads)
10. American Sweethearts by Adriana Herrera The whole American Dreamers quartet is fantastic and well-worth reading but this one has Priscilla who I immediately loved with the entirety of my being. She’s a cop because it meant a lot to her father (and once did for her) but is burnt out and wanting to follow her passion for inclusive sex positivity and teaching others the value of pleasure as a workshop leader and podcast host. It’s the work that brings her to life even if the potential instability of it as a career scares her and the navigation between those two points feels honest and real. It also has the most emotional work being done by both of the characters to be ready for and give this relationship its best chance and I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect. Second chance romances mean you need to really emotionally invest in why these two will make it work this time after numerous failed attempts and I can’t think of anyone more equipped to handle that challenge than Herrera. She is so good at working through and with the soft or spiky bits of her characters and sees them for the coping and protection mechanisms they are so they are able to reach for better. And of course, we get to see Camilo and Tom’s wedding and reunite with the characters from the previous 3 books, whose friendships with each other never fail to make me happy. It’s a series that approaches these characters and the writing from a social justice perspective and weaves important discussions into the story and you feel Herrera’s love for her wider Latinx community shining through the page. (Add to Goodreads)
This wraps up my books of 2020 posts but I have one more year-end post coming up on Thursday to look forward to! If you’re still looking for more content, you can’t go wrong with anything at Marvelous Geeks or Nerdy Girl Notes (and be sure to check out our joint podcast for extra fun!)