Another year of romance saving my life. Simply so grateful for this genre and the many gifts it has brought into my life, from the stories themselves to the life-long friends.
I'm generally game for anything when it comes to romance but even I was surprised by how much I wound up loving a few of the horror romances I tried. I'm a wimp! And yet not only was I downloading those with glee, I was tearing through romances with murdery MCs and it was cathartic as hell. This year also brought some favorite new author discoveries. CL Beaumont and Daniel May are the most notable. I haven't stopped thinking about their books or their incredible prose.
Whenever I was just not feeling whatever I was reading or had a string of DNFs, I turned to Noelle Adams or her edgier pen name Claire Kent. I don't know what it is about her stories but I zoom through them without trouble. Luckily, she has an extensive backlist so I'll be set for quite a while.
I've included a link to my Goodreads reviews at the end of each synopsis for anyone who needs content notes/warnings.
This post contains affiliate links.
Delilah Green Doesn't Care by Ashley Herring Blake
I will cut anyone who hurts Delilah Green. Claire was really great too but Delilah’s prickly self crawled right into my heart and I immediately felt this great need to protect her. Could she be a bit of a mess? Yes. Did she have big walls in place? Absolutely. And I think that’s why I loved her: those self-protective measures keep people out so she won’t be hurt but they also don’t let people in so she continues to feel unlovable. This is some of my biggest character catnip. It’s overall light in tone but instead of making me laugh, it made me cry a lot. That’s high praise: I deeply cared about these characters and was rooting for them to figure things out. It was such a satisfying read. (Content notes.)
The Truth of Things by Tasha Harrison
This book deserves all the recognition! There may be a prevalence of cop MCs in romance but few, if any, interrogate the system they work in. Not so here. My hat is all the way off to Tasha L. Harrison. She really swings for the fences with a clear-eyed look at systemic racism and police brutality. Levi is a Black cop who comes to the scene when Ava is being harassed by a different cop who broke up an altercation near her, an altercation that did not warrant a gun being immediately drawn on them. There are meet-disasters and then there’s this. Ava wants nothing to do with Levi but she has a hard time taking her eyes off of him when she goes to the precinct the next day to report personal property damage.
Ava is committed to social justice and she knows what Camden cops are like. But Levi is one of the so-called good ones (for real) and they start getting to know each other over the phone until he finally gets her to agree to go out with him. Levi was such a stellar character and I really liked what a great complement he was to her. At the same time, how could this possibly end well? I read with my heart in my throat and a pit in my stomach, nervous about what would happen. I was completely in Ava and Levi’s corner. They make a great team and they had such great chemistry. I couldn’t help but root for them to band together despite the circumstances life brought their way. This was heart-wrenching at times. I had so many feelings as I read: joy, despair, hope, frustration, delight, sorrow. This story ripped my heart out real good. Unfortunately, the second book in the duology didn't work as well for me but I still highly recommend this—while it ends with unresolved issues, Ava and Levi still get their HEA. (Content notes.)
Bend Toward the Sun by Jen Devon
Angst-lovers, this one’s for us. It’s the exact kind of story I’ve been missing. Gorgeous writing, layered characters, great angst. It made me laugh out loud and it made me cry…is there anything better? It was such a magical reading experience. Rowan and Harry snuck into my heart from their meet-disaster of a beginning. Rowan won’t risk a serious relationship and Harry doesn’t know how to do casual. They kept getting in their own way, which made my heart clench. I had such a hard time putting this down because I needed to see how it would all come together. This has such a strong sense of place. The way Devon wrote about flowers, plants, grapevines, and nature had me rapt. I wish I could go visit the vineyard and book a stay the bed and breakfast once it’s ready. Similarly, the secondary characters were just as well-developed as Harry and Rowan. The Brady family was absolutely wonderful. I will never tire of a watching a big loving family embrace someone who believes they’re unlovable. People feeling like they don’t belong or like there’s something fundamentally wrong with them is my catnip. My angsty soul is thoroughly satisfied and grateful to have read this. (Content notes.)
Strings Attached by Suzanne Clay
Friends to polyamorous lovers! This was such a treat of a novella. I really felt for April pining all those years. The way things evolved between her and Gavin was utterly compelling. I got such a kick out of Jillian’s advice and that she was part of setting things in motion. I would love to get a story about Jillian and her boyfriend next and then maybe all four together. (Content notes.)
The Enforcer (The Family #3) by Katrina Jackson
Katrina Jackson's brand of Italian mafia just plain works for me. Zoe is highly skeptical that both her cousin and sister randomly fell for these mafia men and she’s sure it’s not going to happen to her. But when they all need to split up for safety, Alfonso takes her to his family and we all know what happens when that kind of forced proximity comes into the picture. Alfonso is a henchman who is good at doing what he’s told…I did not expect that to also apply to the bedroom and I was very much here for it. It was HOT. Zoe is a force to be reckoned with and I loved seeing her rise to every occasion. I loved that they are both adamant about not wanting to have children. This story takes place over a short period of time and it ends with an HFN, one that made perfect sense to me. Alfonso is completely gone for Zoe, as well he should be, but she needs more time to figure out her feelings for him. It ends on a hopeful note for them and a cliffhanger setup for next book. (Content notes.)
Third Life (Second Best #2) by Noelle Adams
This series is utterly gripping. I could scarcely put this down! It wasn’t angsty like Second Best but it still made me cry in the end. Gillian has felt invisible for most of her life. After her mother’s recent death, she decides it’s time for a fresh start and plans a vacation for a one night stand, not expecting to ever meet someone like Richard. Because Richard seems way too out of her league, she’s different with him than anyone else and that winds up being what draws them together. It’s supposed to only be casual: they meet up in different cities around the world for a hot weekend. At first this works but then Gillian realizes she wants more. She’s pragmatic, which I found refreshing, I appreciated the way she went after the life she wanted, even when the way forward wasn’t certain. What can I say about Richard? He was debonair and emotionally repressed. My catnip. I loved watching the evolution of their relationship and what needed to happen for it come together. (Content notes.)
Season of Love by Helena Greer
Set at a Jewish-run Christmas tree farm, Noelle and Miriam are initially at odds when they discover they’ve inherited the farm, along with Miriam’s cousin Hannah and Hannah’s ex Levi. Miriam has been away for the past ten years and Noelle is unaware of her reasons why—but she has strong opinions anyway. They’re both grieving Cass’s death and emotions are high when Miriam decides she’ll stay to get Carrigan’s through this holiday season to Noelle’s chagrin. The evolution from there was an absolute delight but this is NOT a romcom. In addition to grief, it delves into healing from trauma. It has sneaky angst and it made me cry. Miriam is estranged from her abusive father but she also distanced herself from everyone else in the process. It takes time to heal from abuse and learn new ways to respond to conflict. This is true for Miriam, as well as Noelle, and it was so good to see them start figuring things out. They’re not magically fixed by love but they are certainly better for having each other. An amazing crew of secondary characters round out the cast, forming one beautiful found family. I adored them all. (Content notes.)
Names for the Dawn by CL Beaumont
An astoundingly well-written romance set in early 1990s Alaska about a gay trans white American park ranger and gay Pakistani-Indian wolf biologist. The richness of the characters and strong sense of place made for an unforgettable read. Will has forged the life he wants, to a degree. He’s a park ranger. He’s living as the man he always knew he was. But no one knows that he’s trans or gay. He’s deeply closeted, steeled for rejection at every turn. The isolated landscape mirrored how Will has isolated himself. Will wants to be seen but the risks are real and he doesn't believe he'll ever be loved. And then he meets Nikhil, much lauded in his field and in Denali for research. Nikhil is isolated in his own ways too. The story alternates between the summer they met and one year later. We know something tore them apart but not what or how that barrier will be overcome. I felt so deeply for Will and Nikhil, completely invested in how they could possibly get to their HEA. Their intimacy built in such lovely, thoughtful ways, making for one satisfying romance.
Names for the Dawn is the angsty book I've been longing for. This is a languorous, interior book. It’s not that things don’t happen; how the characters feel about these situations matters more. It made me cry several times—my highest praise. This was heart-wrenching and then some and not always in ways I might have guessed. What impressed me beyond the characterization and structure was the writing itself. I highlighted and re-read so many passages, just taking them in. It’s not just that the writing itself is beautiful, although it absolutely is. It’s the way Beaumont writes with care for his readers. There’s nary an emotionally manipulative plot choice. Everything that happened felt earned. I was able to trust where the author was taking me, even when he was ripping my heart out. It’s one of the best romances I’ve ever read. (Content notes.)
Heart of Stone by Johannes T. Evans
Do you need an exquisite slow burn with intense pining and longing glances? Look no further than this historical paranormal romance. Angsty, yearning, gloriously moving. Vampire Henry hires Theophilus as his personal secretary. Henry is lonely and touch-starved but also a completely vivacious, lively character. He’s intensely interested in Theophilus’s opinions, whereas Theophilus is completely baffled by this and wants to maintain propriety. We get different vignettes of their interactions as their relationship grows from employer-employee to friends to (much later) something more. The story focuses on small intimacies and I ate it up. There are lingering gazes upon wrists and contemplation of faces. This book felt revelatory. There’s something deeply loving about all of the characters, in and of themselves but also the way they look out for each other. It has a broader sense of community than your typical historical romance. Then there’s the writing itself, utterly gorgeous prose. What a wonder. (Content notes.)
The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by KJ Charles
When in doubt, turn to KJ Charles. This was a breath of fresh air. Robert sends his editor Henry essentially a companion manuscript to his popular Casebook of Simon Feximal. Only in this version, Robert writes himself back into the narrative about his partner through this collection of stories covering their first five years together. Robert and Simon met because of a ghost and they became further embroiled because of Simon’s work as a ghost-hunter. That age old formula for love, you know. This was crisp, entertaining, creepy, and sneakily angsty. I adored hearing about Robert and Simon’s cases and how they took care of each other and learned what it means to really love someone, no matter the cost. (Content notes.)
Fantasy Romance/Steampunk/Urban Fantasy:
The Kraken King (Iron Seas #4) by Meljean Brook
Adventure and intrigue, an author FMC, and a MMC who says he will come for her, no matter what, AND THEN HE DOES. I swooned so hard over Ariq and Zenobia’s story. Zenobia is considered to have a plain appearance and she’s become very pragmatic about her options as a result, especially since past suitors have only wanted her for her money or access to her brother. She struggles to believe Ariq really wants her and oh how my heart ached. Ariq knows who he is, what he wants, and how to see things through. I loved the way he persevered and endeavored to prove to Zenobia that he was with and for her. He would never contain or limit her. And she wants to be by his side to support him. They made such a fantastic team. I thoroughly enjoyed the meta element of the adventure stories Zenobia writes. This had such good angst and it made me cry a couple of times. I could not have loved this more. (Content notes.)
Sapphire Flames, Emerald Blaze, and Ruby Fever (Hidden Legacy #4-6) by Ilona Andrews
*This series was published by Avon, an imprint of HarperCollins. The HarperCollins Union has been on strike since November 10, 2022. They deserve a fair contract, living wages, and an inclusive workplace. It’s disheartening that HarperCollins has yet to meet these reasonable requests. Learn how to support the union here.*
I saved Catalnia's arc of the Hidden Legacy series until Ruby Fever releases. I did not want to deal with the cliffhangers! It was worth the wait. Only sharing thoughts about Sapphire Flames here so as to avoid giving spoilers. Catalina was an absolute badass. She’s head of the House now and she’s good at it, even if she’s scared half the time. I loved seeing her siren power in action. Her long-time crush on Alessandro made for such an interesting dynamic, as well as highlighting her belief that she’ll never know what love is like due to not trusting her power’s effect on people she’s interested in. This was heartbreaking but it also made for great tension with Alessandro. There are big barriers between these two but Alessandro was clearly just as gone for her, even if she struggled to see it. This is going to be one slow, delicious burn. (Content notes for Sapphire Flames, Emerald Blaze, and Ruby Fever.)
Entreat Me by Grace Draven
Meet my new favorite Beauty & the Beast retelling. Draven upped the ante by giving us not one but two pairs of Beautys and Beasts. Louvaen and Ballard are the primary couple and the secondary is Louvaen’s sister Cinnia and Ballard’s son Gavin. Cinnia is a traditional Beauty, whereas Louvaen is often described as a shrew or a harpy. But really, she’s just a pragmatic, hard-working widow doing her best to take care of her overly trusting sister and incompetent father. Louvaen has all my respect and admiration. She was the true star of this story.
Ballard and Gavin have been cursed for 372 years by Ballard’s wife Isabeau who died after giving birth to Gavin. Gavin’s curse didn’t manifest until he was around 12. This devastated Ballard and he decided to have his magician redirect Gavin’s curse to him instead so he’s taken on the burden completely. But once the curse is done destroying Ballard, it will turn to Gavin. Time is running out for Ballard and they’re despairing over ever ending the curse until Cinnia and Louvaen arrive. The story is driven by whether or not the curse will end. I was so worried for everyone, including the other inhabitants of the castle. My heart was in my throat half the time, just yearning for Ballard and Louvaen to be together. I loved them so much. Even though it follows the beats of the source material, it has interesting twists and nods. A magnificent retelling. (Content notes.)
A Fresh Taste of Ink trilogy by Daniel May
I love when authors make a liar out of me. Infidelity has always been one of my hard limits. There’s no sugar coating Trinket’s choice to cheat on his boyfriend. Knowing the trilogy is about the evolution from infidelity to committed triad helped me enjoy the ride. Trinket, Mini, and Zee made for one unputdownable, incendiary read. This was hot, hot, HOT. The characters are what makes this work. I genuinely liked each of them. I have a strong sense of who they are, in spite of knowing very few specifics about them. I know what makes them tick, what they desire and what they’re embarrassed about. Trinket is cheating on Zee, yes. He’s not necessarily in denial about that fact but he doesn’t think too hard about it either. He’s deeply in love with Zee but there’s something he’s getting from Mini that he also needs. And what he gets from Mini feeds his relationship with Zee, apart from the fact that Zee doesn’t know. There is something symbiotic happening between the three men and the tattoos and the secrecy and I couldn't get enough of it. Highly recommend the whole trilogy. Daniel May has incredible range and I've enjoyed everything else that I've tried by him. (Content notes.)
Mindf*ck series by S.T. Abby
I would sell my soul for Lana and her vigilante justice. She’s become one of my very favorite romance FMCs. Lana is a female serial killer who falls for the FBI agent who’s unknowingly investigating her crimes. Talk about a good setup. It’s compelling as hell, especially given how good she is at profiling and how she can help Logan with his cases. Lana has good reasons for killing these men and I’m 100% on her side. Now I’m not going to lie: what she does to them is grisly but what they did to her was worse and frankly, torture is too good for them. With twists and turns aplenty, I wasn’t sure how things could possibly resolve. All I knew was I needed everyone in Delaney Grove to suffer and then I needed Lana and Logan to get their HEA. While we do get an HEA, ST Abby makes her readers work for it, which made it that much more satisfying for me. This series is very dark (heed the CWs) but it's also cathartic. If you can handle some blood and gore—and I’m saying that as a general wimp—and the CWs aren't sensitive issues for you, it’s well worth the try just to experience the magnificence of Lana. (Content notes.)