I missed talking about the things I love on a regular basis, so these rec posts are back for 2021! The content in them may vary on what I’ve been doing for the past month but they’ll always be some combination of book, TV, movie, and music recs that have gotten my attention in the past month. But these aren’t just about me, I also want to know what things you’re currently loving and we can all share our interests and have even more fun with them.
Book Title: Queen Move
Author: Kennedy Ryan
Genre: Contemporary Romance
I’m pretty sure this book ended up on a lot of Best of 2020 lists and no matter how many it was on, it still wouldn’t be enough. This is one of the most gorgeously written romance books I have ever read. It’s my first by Kennedy Ryan and I was blown away at her poetic language and the yearning she infused in the whole story. It’s a childhood friends-to-lovers, second chance romance and the emotional grounding in these characters is the feature at every step of the way. We get Kimba and Ezra’s story from their first meeting when they were babies to their first kiss and separation to their reunion as adults and it is as magnetic for the reader as their bond is for them. You cannot help but invest in their story, the love between them is so special and rare that through everything that happens, there’s faith that it will survive because something like that can’t just disappear. I cannot recommend it enough and I will leave you with this gorgeous phrasing because it blew me away when I read it, “She was there for my scaffolding – there when my flesh was knit over my bones. And if love is not an emotion, but a type of eternity, an infinity that lives in our hearts, then we have always been in love.”
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)
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.
Where to Watch: IMDb TV (included with Amazon Prime)
This isn’t the first time I’ve recommended this show by any means. But now that it’s streaming again on a platform that more people have (albeit with ads), I’m bringing it back as this month’s recommendation. The premise of the show on its own, that a group of criminals would get together to con a bunch of terrible CEOs who are taking advantage of people out of their money and positions, is incredibly cathartic for this particular moment in time. It’s gloriously angry without ever crossing over into despairing and is well worth the time for the individual episode plots alone. But on top of all that is a commitment to character work and this group of 5 people coming together as a family and healing. It is smartly handled and impossible not to love them just as much as these writers and this cast did. Throw in some incredible relationship development and an OT3 that is showrunner-confirmed but ambiguous in the show itself and you have this beautiful show that stole my heart and has so far refused to let it go. It’s an incredible journey with one of the most satisfying finales I’ve seen and I want everyone to watch it and be comforted by it like so many of its fans still are.
Book Title: A Duke By Default
Author: Alyssa Cole
It’s been a few months since I’ve recommended a book that wasn’t sci-fi or fantasy and it felt like time to once again recommend an Alyssa Cole novel. This time, it’s a contemporary romance and is the second book in her Reluctant Royals series. I loved Portia instantly. I loved her desire to choose an emotionally healthier life for herself and do better for herself. I loved her willingness to call Tavish out when he was being a jerk and demand that he treat her with respect. Most of all, as with all my favorite romance novels, I love that throughout the book, she learns how to love herself. After years of feeling like a failure, she discovers that she has ADHD and better learns how to work with her brain to get the results she knew she was capable of. She finally has an honest conversation with her sister and they work through their issues. She has a solid group of friends who may be an ocean away but still a present part of her life thanks to the wonders of group texts and she quickly befriends Tavish’s sister-in-law because a trademark of Alyssa Cole books (at least the few I’ve read) is women who love each other and have each other’s backs. On the romance front, I cannot resist a man who is utterly dazzled by the woman he loves nor can I resist him getting a swift kick in the ass when he needs an attitude adjustment. Once he gets over himself, he thinks the world of Portia and it is truly adorable to experience. It’s the perfect book to make you smile and cheer and feel for these characters and exactly what I needed this month.
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.