Favorite Romance Novels of 2021

It's hard to believe I only got back into romance almost 5 years ago. My life has changed for the better in so many ways because of it! Besides the obvious of discovering so many amazing stories, I've made life-changing friends and, wildest of all, beta read books. In such uncertain times as these, romance has been a balm, a catharsis, and an escape.

This year I re-read a few of my very favorites, which is rare for me. In the case of Sierra Simone's New Camelot series, enough time had passed and a few friends wanted to read it for the first time that it became an excellent excuse to revisit it. (This series must be read in order; check out the content warnings as needed.) I loved it just as much the second time around and the same was true of my other re-reads. 

I also wound up inhaling the backlists of three different authors. This might not sound unusual but it's not something I do! I can go months, if not years, before picking up another book by an author I'm enjoying. Maybe to make their backlist last longer? I'm not sure. In the case of Genevieve Turner, Kate Canterbary, and Cate C. Wells, I found their books to be compulsively readable. Whenever I had a string of lackluster reads or just wanted to be completely consumed by a story, I'd pick up one of their books and be lost to the world for a while. They all have interconnected series and a series with varying degrees where the stories happen concurrently, which is my catnip. I'm not completely done with their backlists but that won't be true by the time this next year ends. I'm not mad about it.

One of this year's highlights was finishing my foray into Laura Kinsale's backlist with Charlotte, Hannah, and Vicky. We'd all independently read For My Lady's Heart and Flowers From the Storm and shortly after the pandemic began, we decided to buddy read Shadowheart. That led us to the next book and the next and then we decided we might as well be completists. Reading her backlist was an experience in and of itself, full of highs and lows. (You can see my definitive ranking here.) Definitely mind the content warnings. But the real gift was the friendships I formed with them. I can't imagine life without our daily conversations.

You can find my full reviews with content notes on Goodreads. I've included a link for each review. Feel free to give it a Like while you're over there!

This post contains affiliate links.


Contemporary Romance:

For the Love of April FrenchFor the Love of April French by Penny Aimes

Holy moly did I love this book! It's a top notch contemporary romance and my very favorite of the year. April and Dennis were such compelling characters and I loved watching their relationship develop. These are two grownups figuring out how to love and support one another but of course they’re not always going to get it right. There’s on-page therapy, Dom mentorship, and even visiting a trans support group.

From the moment April and Dennis met at Frankie’s, I was on board. April was a sunshiny delight and Dennis was a steady presence. There’s a lot they have to figure out—April believes there’s no way Dennis will be interested in her long-term, Dennis is reeling from the end of a relationship gone bad—and that’s on top of April figuring out they work for the same company…and choosing not to tell Dennis. Normally I hate lie of omission plots but I totally understood why April, thinking this would be a temporary fling, chose to stay quiet and then couldn’t figure out a way to come clean. And I really liked how the author chose to handle the eventual reveal and how they work through it.

This is for sure a new favorite BDSM romance. April and Dennis’s negotiation and consent was hot. It has the longest duration of orgasm control I’ve ever read. I loved how Frankie’s functioned as a community and all the characters we met there—more stories set at Frankie’s, please and thank you.

I haven’t stopped thinking about the way Penny Aimes structured this. We get six months from April’s POV and then we get the same six months from Dennis’s POV. It was fascinating to see their respective experiences of the same situations and thankfully it never became repetitive. In fact, it was both brilliant and imperative to give us this insight into both characters and see how they were reacting to each other and to life. The structure was so unusual for the genre! I can't think of any other romance like it and I love that she went for it. It paid off. I would put this in the category of romances that elevate the genre. Truly a marvel to behold and an impressive debut. I can't wait to see what the author writes next! (Content notes.)



Love & Other DistastersLove & Other Disasters by Anita Kelly

Anita Kelly’s stories are like the best hugs. I simply did not want to put this down and I was both satisfied (because it was perfect) and sad (because it was over) when it ended.

I adored Dahlia and London to pieces. There were parts of Dahlia’s emotional arc that super resonated with me as she’s figuring out next steps in a life that hasn’t turned out as planned. I also loved her even more for not wanting to have children. I’m always here for more child-free couples. London is the first openly nonbinary contestant on Chef’s Special and has to navigate the public stage, as well as their father’s rejection. This also made for some moving, sometimes heartbreaking, scenes and I was glad London had other familial support, as well as Dahlia by their side. Dahlia and London had such great chemistry, making for some great steamy scenes. It wasn’t always smooth sailing between them (one of them could get sent home at any moment! social anxiety! words are hard!), which was so relatable. Their sheer appreciation of and belief in each other had me rooting for them the whole way.

I’m a fan of reality TV food competitions, particularly Top Chef, and I’ve read a few different romances set in this world. Love & Other Disasters is by far my favorite. It had all this great behind-the-scenes and the different challenges were fun to visualize. It’s not all sunshine and roses—there’s a transphobic contestant—but there’s nary an abusive producer or cheating contestant. It was truly enjoyable to be in that world. Dahlia and London are still competing against each other so there are high stakes, as well as navigating what happens if one of them gets cut. I was utterly invested as everything unfolded.

It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me hungry. Absolute perfection. Since this doesn't come out until January 18, bide your time with Kelly's novella Sing Anyway. If I hadn't read L&OD, it would be on this list. (Content notes.)

Disclosure: I received an advanced copy from Forever in exchange for an honest review. I'm friendly with the author online.



Love At FirstLove at First by Kate Clayborn

Kate Clayborn did it once again. Absolutely wonderful from start to finish. She is such a remarkable writer and there was so much intention and care with how she built this story. Nora and Will started off on the wrong foot when he wants to rent out the apartment he inherited in her building. This after a promising exchange from her balcony to his. I couldn’t help but root for them to figure things out. This was such a cozy and comforting book, from the emphasis on home to the older apartment denizens who have formed a found family to the way Will becomes friends with his boss at work. There’s even a poetry night! All these unique details coming together to breathe life into who Nora and Will are and who they want to be.

And who they are is wonderful! I want to wax poetic about Will and his leaning and Nora and her sauce and then the sickbed scene and the towel rack. But I also want you to experience the magic for yourself so I’ll leave it at that.

Kate did remarkable things around grief and memory and generational wounds. Will’s uncle died but he only ever met him once and it’s a painful memory. He wants nothing to do with this apartment. Nora had more of a connection to his uncle than he did. And she’s dealing with her own loss. Nonna died a year ago but she has a palpable presence in the book. I had such a sense of who she was and what she meant to Nora just through the objects in her apartment (that Nora can’t bring herself to get rid of) and the way Nora so often referenced her or what she would have thought of something. It really made me miss my grandma who died in 2007. This story gave me all the feels throughout but the grandma content made me ugly cry. Reading about Nonna and Nora was sad but ultimately cathartic, especially as Nora figures out what changes she needs to make.

This story felt like a warm hug. It was just what I needed. (Content notes.)

Disclosure: I won an advanced copy from BookishFirst. I’m friendly with the author online.



Forever A MaverickForever a Maverick (Always a Cowboy #2) by Genevieve Turner

Where has Genevieve Turner been all my life? This really and truly blew me away. It’s a contemporary Marriage of Convenience between a very strong, kind-hearted farmer and a prickly single mother. I could not have been more on board the moment Ash proposed to Juniper. Her water rights in exchange for cash that will give her and her son Owen a fresh start away from their small judgmental town. Or so she thinks.

This book was downright magical for me. The characters, the gorgeous prose, the farm setting, the central conflict… I was hooked from page one. Ash has always been drawn to Juniper, even if he’s barely said a word to her the last 5 years. We know he’s going to fall hard for her once they’re under the same roof. My heart was in my throat watching the way he looked after her and Owen, just imagining the future heartbreak. But Juniper wasn’t immune either. She has reasons for often acting like a wary feral cat. It can be so hard to know if you can really trust someone and I really loved watching her journey. I tend to prefer my romance be child-free but Owen turned out to be great. It was lovely to see them form their little family, even if Juniper had one foot out the door for much of it. And Ash and Juniper had such great chemistry!! Ash puts his muscles to good use.

My heart truly ached for them. It wrecked me but it was a sneaky wreck. I nearly sobbed at one point. And then later I cried happy tears. It was just so moving and wonderful and it did my heart good. (Content notes.)



House RulesHouse Rules (Uptown #3) by Ruby Lang

Ruby Lang knows what I want and that’s romances about people in their 40s who are just fine about not having kids. I loved this second chance romance! Simon and Lana divorced 17 years ago and haven’t seen each other since, until they run into each other while viewing an apartment. One thing leads to another and they wind up becoming roommates, despite Simon’s reservations. They’ve both changed and grown during their time apart so now they have a chance to reconnect and discover these new sides to each other. I loved the way Simon took care of Lana when her endometriosis was especially bad (I’m relieved mine doesn’t get this bad) and all of Muffin the cat’s antics. It was cool to see Lana work her craft of hand-pulled noodles. It’s holiday-adjacent, following Simon and Lana through Christmas and Lunar New Year. This is a grown up romance about grown ups, lovely and quiet but still chemistry aplenty. This whole series has been a delight. (Content notes.)






Losing StreakLosing Streak (The Lane #2) by Kristine Wyllys

Kristine Wyllys, please write more books in this series because I need them! Or any books, really. I’m not picky. I’m just over here, completely astounded by this book. Wild Ones was one of my favorite reads of 2020 and I needed a little time before I reentered that gritty world again. Wyllys is a stunning writer. Her prose is evocative and there’s an immediacy that made me feel like I was right there with the characters.

And what characters they were! Rosie is my favorite kind of prickly FMC. She is a fierce fighter, ready to claw her way to a better life and to make sure her slacker brother and dying mother are taken care of. It's a house of falling cards thanks to her mother's medical debt and lifelong poverty. Rosie takes nothing for herself, until she meets Brandon. He’s not the best choice for her. He’s from the same side of the tracks as she is and he gambles, instead of getting a real job. When things go sideways, they really go sideways.

The book is divided into two parts. First, when Rosie and Brandon meet. And then after circumstances keep them apart for three years. The stakes were incredibly high, especially as Rosie and Brandon try to find a way back to each other without losing everything and everyone they love in the process.

It made for intense reading. It wasn’t quite angsty but it definitely punched me in the throat a few times. I was so invested in what would come of these two, desperate to learn how they could escape Joshua’s clutch. It was a relief to get to the end and see them come through to the other side. (Content notes.)



A Certain AppealA Certain Appeal by Vanessa King

Pride and Prejudice…but make it burlesque! What a fresh, inventive retelling this turned out to be. The author made great choices about what parts of the original to adapt. This omitted the parts of P&P I don’t care much for, which made it extra enjoyable for me. The burlesque club setting was fun. I loved the details about the various performances and behind the scenes preparations. The way Bennet talked about it and the way it grew her confidence was so appealing.

Darcy (there to advise his friend on whether to invest in the club) and Bennet don’t get off on the right foot. They had such amazing chemistry right from the jump. Their first kiss was one of the hottest first kiss scenes I’ve read in a while. Absolutely smoldering! And when they finally have sex, it was downright incendiary. It takes a while to build to those physical elements and it made for a great payoff.

I was particularly gripped and enchanted by the second half, as the book’s themes started coming together and as Darcy and Bennet got together. There’s a fascinating examination of intimacy within the world of burlesque, with who Bennet is on stage vs. who she is with Darcy. Darcy has trouble understanding burlesque initially, not necessarily in a kink-shaming way, but in being able to sort out his unexpected attraction to Bennet. I really loved how this element came together.

I’m so glad I gave this debut a chance! An absolute winner. (Content notes.)



One Last ChanceOne Last Chance (One Day to Forever #3) by Therese Beharrie

I’m so sad this series is over! How on earth did Therese Beharrie manage to write characters falling for each other over the course of 24 hours without it veering into insta-love? Zoey and Sawyer haven’t seen each other in 6 years when they come across each other at a park. And ope, they’re still secretly married. Through flashbacks, we learn more about their friendship, the way Sawyer pined for her for years, and where everything changed and then fell apart. There’s no quick fix here but it helped that Zoey has been in therapy and has worked through some of her issues and knows the kind of person she wants to be now. Sawyer still has some work to do but you can see how he and Zoey still have the ability to bring out the best in one another. At any point, they could have gone in different directions. That they continually chose each other, even in the years where they weren’t speaking, paves the way for them to choose each other again and then figure out a way forward. I adored these two. And it was fun to get glimpses of Zoey’s sisters and seeing how those relationships have come along as well. (Content notes.)






Big BoyBig Boy by Ruthie Knox

What a marvelous novella! Ruthie Knox packs quite an emotional punch despite the constraints of the form. The premise gave me big The Story Guy vibes, which I loved, and somehow I think I love this one even more. Mandy and Tyler meet once a month for some fun role play on a train at the National Railroad Museum. It’s a reprieve from their respective responsibilities. They don’t share names or details about their lives. Or do they? For hidden behind the roles they’ve assumed for the night—a flapper, a traveling salesman, etc.—they embed their secrets and fears and the reasons for keeping things anonymous and limited begin to go by the wayside, if they only dare. Moving, hot, fun read. (Content notes.)







Perfect MatchaPerfect Matcha (Bold Brew #3) by Erin McLellan

This was angstier than I was expecting it to be, compared to McLellan’s fantastic So Over The Holidays series. It hurt my heart so good!

“Need a date for my ex’s wedding” as a premise doesn’t work for me about 99% of the time because I don’t understand going to your ex’s wedding unless you’ve been able to forge a friendship afterward. I’m happy this is one of those exceptions. Theo, Camden, and Freddie were best friends while they were growing up. Camden was in love with Theo but missed his chance when Freddie made a move instead. Freddie and Theo dated for 3 years but broke up 5 years ago and the friendship hasn’t been the same since. It makes sense why Freddie might still invite Theo to his wedding and it also makes sense why Camden is so adamant about not rocking the boat. He is terrified of losing Theo’s friendship. This makes for some intense pining. Meanwhile, Theo has no idea what his feelings are when it comes to Camden but we get clues, like when he realizes Camden’s hands are cold and thinks he should research gloves for him. What a nerd! I loved it.

This was filthy and sweet and kinky and all kinds of heart-warming. I loved how sex toys were incorporated in to the plot and how gender inclusive and normalized the discussion around them was. Trademark Erin McLellan. (Content notes.)



Not a MistakeNot a Mistake by Amber Belldene

Surprise pregnancy is one of my least favorite tropes but every once in a while, I’ll give it a go because I love finding exceptions to the rule. Not a Mistake turned out to be one of those refreshing exceptions! 

Jordan is an Episcopal priest, a couple of months out of seminary and starting with a new congregation. I could not have loved her more! From her interactions with grumpy congregants to her friendship with Alma (who has her own spin-off mystery series!) to her love of a cardigan past its prime, I was completely in her corner.

Dominic was Jordan’s ethics professor at seminary and she had a crush on him the past 3 years. Nothing ever happened, nor had he given her the slightest indication he’d be interested. But the night of graduation, he actually said yes to celebratory drinks with her and her fellow seminarians and they wound up sleeping together. Now he’s no longer her professor but it’s not completely free of ethical gray area either. When she realizes she’s pregnant, she doesn’t even plan on telling him initially because she figures he regrets what happened but he figures it out. 

I loved how this wrestled with guilt and regret and what we mean by calling something a mistake. There was the right amount of angst and banter. They had amazing chemistry but circumstances also draw them closer together emotionally. I was so invested in watching them figure out if this would work. (Content notes.)



Best Laid PlansBest Laid Plans (Garnet Run #2) by Roan Parrish

If you told me Roan Parrish peered inside my heart and brain and then wrote this book just for me, I’d believe you. It could not have been more perfect for me! Characters that made me emotional. Stellar cat content. Laugh out loud moments to balance out the tears. Passages that had me reflecting on my own life. I could not have loved it more.

I do not presently own a cat but I am, at heart, a cat lady. Best Laid Plans had some of the best cat content yet. Charlie and his cat Jane have a whole morning ritual; Marmot regularly lays on Rye’s shoulders. The cats are stress relievers but also sources of joy and hilarity. Marmot and Jane quickly befriend each other. I seriously could not get enough! That was only the start of what cats come to mean to both Charlie and Rye.

And to keep this theme going, Rye is basically a feral cat himself. He’s been fending for himself for years and he’s never had a truly safe home, given that he left at age 16. Inheriting a house from the grandfather he never met seems like a chance to start over, except for the fact that it’s falling down. Charlie is a complete caretaker and he can’t help but offer his handyman services to Rye when Rye comes into his store for tools and supplies. Rye is skeptical as to why a stranger would offer to help and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him learn to trust Charlie and for Charlie to learn that he’s worthy in and of himself, not because of what he can do for others. They were so good together and I loved watching them create a home together. (Content notes.)



The Belle and the BeardThe Belle and the Beard (The Santillian Triplets #3) by Kate Canterbary

I was completely wrapped up in this story! From the moment Linden asked Jasper if she was breaking in to the house next door, I was hooked. True, I’m a sucker for neighbors-to-lovers and banter but I seriously adored both of these characters.

Jasper and Linden had such a great dynamic and their chemistry was palpable. There were so many details I loved. Linden notices how she leaves the last cup of coffee or dregs of marmalade for him—not as a kind gesture but because she’s trying to make herself small. That kind of noticing. Be still my heart! Jasper keeps thinking about Linden as a wolf (which delighted me, a werewolf lover)…and then she found out his middle name is Wolf! Did I cackle? Cannot confirm or deny. 

I also really enjoyed watching Jasper take stock of her life and figure out what she was going to do next. Fresh starts aren’t easy. Figuring out a new career on top of that is even harder. My heart really went out to her. I also enjoyed the metaphor of clearing out and rehabbing her aunt’s house. (Content notes.)





Holiday Romance:

Every New YearEvery New Year by Katrina Jackson

How did Katrina Jackson write not one but TWO perfect New Year’s Eve romances? Grand Theft NYE blew me away a couple of years ago and somehow this one is even better.

Candace and Ezra have been friends for 18 year. Friends who have been pining for each other for 18 years. Ezra has catalogued her laughs and she’s catalogued his smiles. The cuteness! They are convinced the other person isn’t interested and they don’t want to risk losing the friendship. Add in his shyness and social awkwardness and her wanting him to make the first move for once and you can see how this happened. You can also see how they just need to get out of their own way! 

The structure really made this book for me. We get scenes from various NYEs over the years interspersed with the present NYE. Candace and Ezra have both independently decided it’s time to get over this unrequited crush…only to land on the same plane to Quito, she as a flight attendant, he as a passenger.

I inhaled this story. It was sweet and sexy and moving. Highly recommended. (Content notes.)




Paranormal, Monster, and Fantasy Romance:

The Tyrant Alpha's Rejected MateThe Tyrant Alpha's Rejected Mate by Cate C. Wells

4.5 stars. Cate C. Wells’s first shifter romance did not disappoint! Not only did I thoroughly enjoy reading this, she subverted every part of the fated mates trope and it blew my mind. This is game-changing stuff for paranormal romance and I am so curious to see how the rest of the series will develop. 

The world-building choices were fascinating. The Quarry pack essentially functions like homesteaders living off the grid but humans are aware of werewolves’ existence and other packs are more integrated. Killian became alpha young and his leadership style has been more focused on what he doesn’t want to be like (his abusive dad). He hasn’t had good examples of healthy leadership that he could work toward so his efforts in changing the pack have only gone so far. Una opened his eyes to the ways the pack could do and be more. And at the same time he is learning and processing all this, he’s seeing Una in a brand new light. Gah, my heart!!

Una is the heart and soul of this book. She’s also the heart and soul of the Quarry pack. They just didn’t know it yet. I was all in for her from page one and I loved watching Killian slowly recognize what a treasure he had in her. He massively screwed up but this made for a fantastic emotional arc. He really broke my heart a few times and I wasn’t sure he’d be able to ever make up for the way he rejected Una. It was good and necessary to see Una make him work for it. The way it all came together was downright magical. (Content notes.)



A Duet for Invisible StringsA Duet for Invisible Strings by Llinos Cathryn Thomas

My heart is full after all the yearning and pining in this chaste FF contemporary fantasy romance. Neither Heledd and Rosemary realize they’re both in love with each other and it was sweet how oblivious they were. One of my favorite moments was when Rosemary invited Heledd over and Heledd thought about googling "what do you wear to a friend's house.” I love characters who aren’t quite sure how to people. The fantasy element is light—I had no idea there was going to be a fantasy element at all and I was utterly delighted when I realized what was happening. The star of this novella, however, is the way music draws Heledd and Rosemary together and ultimately becomes the key to the HEA. I loved how it all unfolded. Such remarkable writing! (Content notes.)







Paladin's GraceThe Saint of Steel series by T. Kingfisher

 I cannot pick a favorite between the first two books in this series so just start with book 1 and thank me later. For a book with a lot of severed heads and a murder trial, Paladin's Grace nonetheless felt like a warm hug. Grace and Stephen were adorably awkward together. She’s a master perfumer and is angry that he smells like gingerbread because how dare he! He’s a warrior who knits socks! T. Kingfisher’s writing just plain works for me and her books are always a delight to read. Her thoughtful world-building includes religion and I really appreciated the way this installment explored what happens when one’s god dies and the way the paladins take care of each other in the aftermath. (Content notes.)







JanineJanine: His True Alpha by Chencia C. Higgins

4.5 stars. I absolutely inhaled this werewolf romance! I’ve meant to read Chencia C. Higgins for a while now and I’m mad I didn’t read this sooner. Her world-building choices were compelling, starting with the werewolf origin story. A formerly enslaved woman was left 2000 acres in Texas by her enslaver so she moved there, along with her 11 children, after his death. She noticed that the 7 children she’d born for him had unique abilities and Madow became a werewolf colony and safe haven as a result, still thriving all these years later. But not all packs operate this way, as we learn through Janine who essentially grew up in a cult that repressed her abilities and manipulated her. She’s freshly arrived in Madow and it was heartbreaking to see her realize her old pack was not normal and that she’d been missing out on so much.

Janine and Langston were both wonderful characters and it was quite the treat to watch them resist the initial connection. There’s no resisting your mate though! I loved watching them slowly draw closer and especially enjoyed them frolicking in the woods together as wolves. There were so many thoughtful details that rounded out the story. I was utterly delighted! (Content notes.)




Morning Glory Milking FarmMorning Glory Milking Farm by C.M. Nascosta

A delightful steamy monster romance! It leans all the way in with a minotaur MMC and he is indeed a MINOTAUR. Violet becomes a milking technician and falls for one of her clients. This was freaking hot. Based on the set up, I was expecting erotic romance or erotica but it’s more like a really hot fantasy romance. Whatever it is, it sure worked for me. More than anything, it's a sweet story with an unconventional setup.

There was such anticipation in finding out Mr. Hot Minotaur’s name and then seeing how they would navigate whether a relationship was possible. I really enjoyed watching things come together for these two. The chemistry!! This was such a fun world to be in and I’m looking forward to seeing where the series goes from here. (Content notes.)






Science Fiction Romance:

Love CodeLove Code (Strange Love #2) by Ann Aguirre

Oh my heart! This was such an utterly delightful and satisfying story. I felt so happy after I finished it. It had humor, steam, and incredibly thoughtful consent. Truly, how does Ann Aguirre making head tendrils touching so hot?? Plus, great queer rep. (Saying this as a cishet reader but confirmed by two bi friends.) Qalu has four mothers and she’s either bi or pan. Asking about pronouns is common. Tiralan choose their gender when they reach maturity, although they can choose to remain in their neutral state. Helix initially decides to use “he” but by the end, decides the neutral state is a better fit and opts as “they” for their pronoun. This does mean “he/him” is used for the bulk of the book but everyone adapts quickly to the switch. 

Helix and Qalu were the aliens of my dreams and I loved watching how their relationship grew from scientist-prototype to friends to lovers. (OK yes technically Helix is an AI but they were given a biosynthetic body that looks Tiralan and so they are therefore also an alien.)

Aevi really stole the show for me, much like Snaps in Strange Love. She’s basically a cat-bird hybrid and wants to murder anyone who would hurt Helix. Same here, Aevi. (Content notes.)



Romantic Suspense:

Queen's RansomQueen's Ransom (Fog City #4) by Layla Reyne

CW: past intimate partner violence

I read the first three books in this series just so I could get to this one and it sure paid off! Celia and Helena’s chemistry has been building but I was worried they’d just jump right into things, despite what Celia’s been through. Luckily, enough time has passed before this book begins. Celia is now divorced and she’s gotten counseling and is in a domestic violence support group. She’s doing much better and Helena’s back in town after a long business trip. However, their friendship-turned-romance has to be put to the side when a drive-by shooting happens at Celia’s auto shop.

The suspense plot was well balanced to things slowly heating up between Celia and Helena. Celia has known she’s pan but she’d only ever been with her ex-husband. There’s a little internalized panphobia to work through and Helena was great about that, as well as Celia’s nervousness about not knowing exactly what to do. Helena’s really worried about bringing Celia into her life and possibly endangering her but Celia’s outsider perspective and caretaking nature is exactly why she’s so perfect for Helena. I loved watching them figure things out! (Content notes.)




Erotic Romance:

Way Down DeepWay Down Deep by Charlotte Stein and Cara McKenna

An epistolary erotic romance between a single parent and an agoraphobe that begins when one of them sends a text to a number that should be out of service only to find it compassionately answered by a stranger. Their messages go on from there. It is impossible to review this book without spoilers because of the way things are revealed, right down to the characters’ names, through the course of the story and I don’t want to spoil one thing. There are some big content warnings so check those out if needed.

The writing is heart-achingly good. Their connection is palpable and I loved how the messages evolved, from long tomes on the ordinary and everyday to hot sexts to starting to function more like the reply-and-response of normal texts. It was steamy and angsty and I was right there in it with them, hungry for personal details and to learn who was behind the texts and whether they’d be able to transition into a real life relationship. It didn’t make me cry because my heart is apparently made of stone but I did tear up because oh how I wanted it to work out for them and it was so close to falling apart.

I really didn’t know how an HEA would be possible, especially due to events toward the end, but it ends on a very promising, hopeful note. I only wish we could get that story next! (Content notes.)



Favorite Romance of 2021

Favorite Fiction of 2021

2021 proved to be an interesting reading year. On the one hand, I read just as much as usual. On the other hand, I noticed I had significantly fewer 5 star books. While I will still have four annual favorite books lists for this year, there are less books included and I didn't have all that hard of a time narrowing down the list.

I read a lot of great 4 star books so it's not like good reads were hard to find. More like, the best books stood out above the rest even more than usual. I have some untested theories about why that might be (maybe a little of my reading mood, maybe a little of more author's having books out that were written during the pandemic).

This year I read 276 books, 66 novellas, and 17 short stories. Just slightly more than last year. I would have guessed those numbers would decrease this past year, in hopes of more travel and social activity once I got vaccinated. Some of that has happened but I'm still being cautious and only spend time with people who are vaccinated. Plus, I still don't watch TV so if I'm home, I'm reaching for a book or two. 

As much as I enjoy fiction that isn't romance or YA, I didn't read all that much of it this past year and it took more to impress me, for whatever reason. This list is the shortest favorites list I've ever put together! But these books really do stand out. 

I'm still reviewing everything I've read over on Goodreads. That makes it three years now, which is truly wild. (More about that here.) Because of that, I decided to change how I formatted this post this year. I'm including a link to my Goodreads reviews for anyone who needs content notes/warnings or who would like to read the full review. Feel free to give it a Like while you're over there!

Still to come: my favorite romance novels, YA, and nonfiction of 2021.

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The Jasmine ThroneThe Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

Tasha Suri has outdone herself. This is an impressively crafted Indian-inspired sapphic fantasy about an imprisoned princess and a maid with a secret identity. The stakes are high for Princess Malini: not only does her brother want her dead but she’s trying to orchestrate a coup behind the scenes. The current king is oppressively misogynistic and abusive and he delights in setting women ablaze on pyres. According to their religion, this is how women become pure and holy but Malini refuses to burn. And soon Priya is drawn into the plot, despite her reservations and the personal cost of being back at the temple where she was almost murdered as a child. 

Malini, vicious and canny, was a force to behold. Priya was no slouch either. She is a temple child and being back the Hirana awakens more of her gifts. I wouldn’t mess with either of them. The characters in this world have gone through difficult things but this story is about overcoming and vengeance. It takes on imperialism, patriarchy, and the corruption of religion. But it also examines who the real monsters are and where the line is when it comes to taking back power. I gobbled it up.

While the story is focused on what will happen in the realm, it also delves into Malini and Priya’s shifting relationship. They can’t trust each other. They shouldn’t trust each other. And they certainly shouldn’t act on any feelings while they’re seeking freedom. But what else can you do? I really loved how things developed between them. The love story is secondary but it’s promising, even if both women are headed in different directions by the end. I can’t wait to see what path leads them back together and how everything else unfolds in the next book. I’m here for murder princesses and powerful priestesses! (Content notes.)



Honey GirlHoney Girl by Morgan Rogers

This is the exact kind of contemporary fiction I love reading! Complex characters going on an emotional journey with a hopeful ending. It has a hell of a premise (accidentally married a stranger in Vegas!) but it’s really about Grace trying to figure out her life. She’s in her late 20s, just finished her astronomy PhD according to her strict, driven plans, but nothing else has worked out. She’s a biracial lesbian who isn’t interested in conforming to others’ more limiting standards, going so far as to walk out of a racist job interview. But that doesn’t solve her dilemma about where to work and what to do next. Who is she if her life plan goes off the rails? What happens if she doesn’t get the absolute best job? And where does Yuki, the stranger she drunkenly married, fit in to any of this? She’s a fascinating character, at times entitled but also just as aware of society’s marks against her and her own perfectionist tendencies.

Grace could be messy. She has a history of running away when things get hard and we see that happen a few different times before she winds up starting therapy and reckoning with her choices and her upbringing. I loved her to pieces through it all. And then there’s Yuki, Grace’s new wife whose name she doesn’t even know. Yuki who spins magical yearning stories on her radio show to help people feel less alone. To help Grace feel left alone. This isn’t a romance but it does have a wonderfully moving love story. 

This was such a gorgeously written debut. I can’t wait to see what the author does next! (Content notes.)



For the WolfFor the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

I highly recommend this for anyone who enjoys fantasy and/or fairy tale retellings. The truly inventive world-building and gorgeous writing left me in awe. Creepy, enthralling, and such a great take on Little Red Riding Hood. I'm 100% Team Wolf. Red and Eammon were so well-suited for one another, although getting a happy ending was hard-won and their battle is not over yet. (This is fantasy, not fantasy romance, but the love story made my heart so full!) Red’s sister Neve was just as compelling, though I frequently wanted to yell at her to make different choices. But those choices mean her book has so many possibilities and I can't wait to read it. There’s not one secondary character that didn’t give me Big Feelings. Plus, I loved the way the Wilderwood functions as a character and the Wolf's role as a keeper of the forest/Green Man.

I don’t want to spoil one thing from the plot because part of the fun lies in this discovery. Suffice it to say there is so much to discuss: the corruption of religion, the truth behind myths, and the power of choice. I’ll be turning my mind around this story for a long time. This series has completely captivated me and I’m ready to see wherever Whitten goes next.
 (Content notes.)




HamnetHamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

An incredibly thoughtful, nuanced story about Shakespeare’s wife and children. He is never referred to as Shakespeare but instead presented in relation to others: Agnes’s husband, the Latin tutor, Judith’s father. The story is focused on those forgotten by history and I loved the way it centered on the women and children. O’Farrell imagines what happened when his son died. It took me a little bit to get into it but then I was completely gripped by the narrative and the way it flashed back between when Agnes met her husband in the past and then Hamnet and Judith getting sick in the present.

I expected this book to be more sad than it was, based on the premise. It is certainly quite moving in the last half of the book. The first 150 pages or felt distant or remote, however, as it built toward Hamnet’s death and then it flipped into the immediacy of the loss and Agnes’s grief. I’m always interested to see how grief is depicted and Agnes is dragged under and forever changed by hers. Understandably so. She had been steady for so long but Hamnet’s death undoes everything she knows of the world and her connection to liminal spaces when she realizes she cannot see her dead son, though she has seen others who are deceased. We see the impact on Hamnet’s sisters, particularly his twin Judith, and his father who eventually writes Hamlet as his way of processing what happened. It’s a great exploration of grief and loss. I’ll be mulling this one over for some time to come. (Content notes.)



Favorite Fiction of 2021

Favorite Nonfiction of 2020

Last year, my goal was to increase the amount of nonfiction I read. I had a loose plan for 2020 and I was on the right track. Then I experienced the Nashville tornado, directly followed by the pandemic in March. And my brain really did not want to focus on nonfiction anymore. I could lose myself in fiction without trouble but my eyes literally would not focus if I switched to nonfiction.

So I tried a few different things. I occasionally listened to memoirs on audiobook while I worked on a puzzle. I tried other nonfiction but memoir was the only successful option. And I could not listen to more than one, maybe two audiobooks per month or I'd lose patience and/or interest. Due dates proved to be helpful so I mostly gave up on the nonfiction I owned and turned to library ebooks instead. Lastly, in the case of The Warmth of Other Suns, which I started in February with the intention of reading 20 pages per week, I switched to reading 10 pages per day. Those pages add up and it taught me I do better with daily page counts, instead of weekly. I'm going to try that trick with other nonfiction I've been wanting to read going forward.

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Know My NameKnow My Name by Chanel Miller

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? This is a remarkable book and yet Chanel Miller should have never had to write it. Even so, I’m glad it exists and I fervently hope it creates lasting systemic change in which rapists are held accountable, systems actually serve and benefit the victims, and we see a noticeable decline in violence against women.

This was tough to read at times because of the subject matter. I ultimately switched from print to audiobook and this was a great decision. Miller narrates it herself and it made me appreciate her writing even more. I was not surprised to learn she studied spoken word—her care with word choice and cadence was evident throughout. She is a fantastic writer and I hope she’ll continue to write. I’ll never forget reading her victim statement on Buzzfeed and seeing the way it resonated with everyone. (This is included at the end of this memoir.) She has a powerful voice and she’s using it well.

CW: rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, teen suicide, suicidal ideation, school shooting





Here For ItHere For It: Or, How To Save Your Soul in America by R. Eric Thomas

Magnificent memoir-in-essays that made me laugh out loud and tear up. R. Eric Thomas is an incredibly gifted writer and his deft economy of language astounded me sentence after sentence. He writes about figuring out where he belonged as a Black gay Christian man. This is a solid collection but the latter half of the book was especially striking and contained my two favorite essays: Dinner Guests and Unsubscribe From All That. It's this latter half that made it a 5 star read. 

CW: racism, homophobia, death of a friend by suicide








Good TalkGood Talk by Mira Jacob

Extraordinary graphic memoir. I loved the stories she chose to share and the accompanying artwork. The last line or two made me tear up.

CW: racism, biphobia, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, anti-Semitism, cancer, death of father, marijuana, 9/11








Over The TopOver The Top by Jonathan Van Ness

Highly recommend listening to this on audio as Jonathan reads it and adds so much warmth and dimension to the stories shared. This is such a beautiful message of love and self-acceptance. I loved getting to hear more about his life and I was really moved by so many of the stories, including the death of his stepfather and his struggles with sobriety. He takes care with the details he shares, trying to honor what he experienced without oversharing or potentially triggering others, going so far as to include content warnings at the start (bless him) and share what he’s learned in therapy. He also does a fair amount of education, especially regarding HIV and mental health. There are some great Queer Eye behind-the-scenes but mostly this left me with even more appreciation of who JVN is.

Note: Jonathan is nonbinary and at the time of this review, his pronouns are he/him/his.

CW: child sexual abuse, substance abuse, sex addiction, sex work, HIV diagnosis, death of loved one (cancer), fat-shaming (countered)





Let Love RuleLet Love Rule by Lenny Kravitz

I listened on audiobook since Lenny narrates and this is absolutely the way to go. That voice!!! In addition to narrating, there are clips of him singing, including a favorite song when he was child and a church band he was part of. I’ve only known the broadest outlines of his life so I learned a ton. He starts out by reflecting on being a Gemini and the way he sees many dualities in his life, from having a Black mom and white father and so on. I was surprised to find out he was part of a boys choir and that he joined the Seventh Day Adventist Church. It was really interesting to hear his thoughts about faith and spirituality, particularly because of how open he is and how it all intersects with his dad being Jewish. And while I knew who his mom was, I did not know just how many big names were a part of his life (one of his godmothers is Cicely Tyson!) or how they influenced the trajectory of his career. I love that he had a sense of how Lisa Bonet would factor into his life well before they ever met. It was sweet to hear about the start of their relationship and Zoe’s birth. This only covers right up to when his career starts to take off and I’m looking forward to the next part of the story. As this book ended, he reflected that he was about to make some big mistakes and his story is to be continued. He’s a fascinating man, as fascinating as he’s attractive, really.

Because I listened to this, I didn’t do a great job tracking content warnings so here’s a partial list: parental infidelity, marijuana, racism, anti-Semitism, death of grandparent, friend’s substance abuse, teen friend had a pimp and he rescued her



The Warmth of Other SunsThe Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson deserves every accolade she’s received. This is a stunning undertaking, part historical account, part sociology book, looking at the Great Migration of Black citizens who fled the South and came to the North looking for a better life. Wilkerson focuses on three people over the course of several decades and weaves in stories from other people along the way. It is not always easy to read (I did not track content warnings but just about everything you can think of applies to someone in these pages) but it shouldn’t be. No place in the United States is immune from the stain of racism and we have to actually deal with our history if we're ever going to be able to heal from it. George, Ida Mae, and Robert deserved so much better than they got, even once they arrived at their respective destinations. The Warmth of Other Suns deals directly with racism and its legacy. As a white reader, it’s important for me to sit with that discomfort and reflect on what I can be doing to challenge the systemic racism that's still in place. I certainly wish this had existed when I was in school but I’m so glad I read it now. Also: I did not expect Ray Charles or Barack Obama to make appearances in these pages and they were both fun surprises!





Good and MadGood and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger by Rebecca Traister

What a cathartic read! The next time someone tells me anger is an unhealthy emotion, I’m going to shove this book in their hands.

This is written from a white lens and while Traister takes pains to acknowledge women of color wherever possible, it still largely centers the white woman’s experience. I plan on reading Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage and Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her for other perspectives.

Note: I did not track content warnings for this book but as you may imagine, it deals heavily with the ways women are mistreated, maligned, gaslighted, and abused. Exercise caution as needed.






Catch and KillCatch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

CW: sexual harassment, rape, attempted rape, sexism, misogyny, chid sexual abuse, pedophilia, reference to attempted suicide

This was brilliant journalism. Incredibly well-written but infuriating to see what men in power succeeded in getting away with far too many years. I seriously hate those in charge at NBC for canceling this story. At so many points, Farrow could have walked away, as Weinstein and his cronies made it very difficult for him to continue. I’m so grateful he prevailed and we now know the truth about these men. He did his best to honor what women these women endured and speak truth.

Part of me wants to look up all the people who tried to suppress it (again! The number of journalists who tried before Farrow is staggering) and the larger part of me doesn't want to know they didn't face any major consequences. The rise of #MeToo has made a difference and validated so many, including me, but people who abused their power still have yet to feel the brunt of their vile actions. When men’s careers start suffering because of their treatment of women, then we’ll know progress is actually being made.

When I think about the women whose careers were ruined, either overtly or indirectly because of the trauma, because of these men, I could weep. The story left me incandescent with rage. I am furious about how many people protected Weinstein, how many were complicit in his horrific treatment of women, and how many years he got away with it. It's sickening.

Farrow places himself in this story because it’s not just about the reporting he did but how his personal life was attacked and spied upon. It was really interesting to see how he wasn't immune to the allure of power himself. After the story broke, he tried to toe the line with what he said about NBC trying to kill the story, not lying about it but not leading with it either, because he hoped to get his old job back. We gotta pay our bills, I get it. And yet I don't think I could work for a place that did me and so many others dirty.

Farrow wanted to believe killing the Weinstein story was a one-off at NBC, not a pattern or evidence of how deep the rot went. That’s his privilege and shows why men in power keep getting away with this BS. Ultimately, as he sees the men in charge at NBC continue to pass the buck or even try to gaslight him, and as he uncovers evidence about Matt Lauer and many other journalists and executives there, he realizes there’s no going back.

This dragged up some of my own experiences (which pale in comparison to what Weinstein, Lauer, etc's victims went through) and if this is true of you, be gentle with yourself as you read and as you process these events. It’s well worth reading about and it’s well done. But it’s proof of how much farther we have to go.



Don't Call Us DeadDon't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

What a remarkable collection. Smith’s poems wrestle with sex, sexuality, desire, HIV, and Blackness in ways that are luminous, revealing, and heart-wrenching. This is one to sit with for a while. Highly recommend.









Favorite YA of 2020

In normal years, I read a lot of YA. That did not happen this year for no particular reason. The good news is what I lacked in quantity, I made up for in quality. Most of the YA I read blew me away. Last year I leaned more toward fantasy than contemporary. This year it was the other way around, for no particular reason. Here are my favorite YA novels of 2020!

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Like A Love StoryLike A Love Story by Abdi Nazemiany

Meet my all-time favorite YA novel. This book wrecked me. What an utterly magnificent story! It explores friendship, first love, AIDS, grief, Madonna, and so much more. This is set in 1989-1990, when I was 9/10 years old. The characters are 17 so we had different experiences and it gave me a new way to relive that time, particularly to reflect on what life was like for the LGBTQ+ community and those coming out in the wake of AIDS. I knew about HIV and AIDS when I was growing up, although I don’t remember when I first became aware or how. By the time I was in college, the treatment had much improved and there were more options. But we can’t forget about the period in which AIDS wreaked havoc and Reza, Art, and Uncle Stephen, as well as the activists, brought this to life in a new way for me. Reza, Art, and Judy had such an interesting dynamic and I loved the way this looked at their changing relationships. This is structured with alternating POVs between the three of them and then sections interspersed with one of the gay flashcards Uncle Stephen created for Art. I also appreciated seeing Reza’s mom’s journey toward acceptance and the way their Iranian culture impacted her understanding and concerns. While it’s about grief and loss, it’s also a celebration of the queer community and found family. I’m a better person for having read it.

CW: AIDS, death of a loved one, grief, internalized homophobia, homophobia, Islamaphobia, racism, homophobic and racial slurs, fatshaming, death of parent (alcoholism, liver failure), bullying (including telling main character to kill themselves), euthanasia, police violence, reference to Pulse nightclub shooting, reference to someone getting their stomach pumped



You Should See Me In A CrownYou Should See Me In A Crown by Leah Johnson

What a remarkable YA debut from Leah Johnson! Liz is a Black closeted queer senior who prefers to be a wallflower in her small town high school. But when she loses out on a crucial scholarship, she has to throw her hat in the ring for prom queen. Because in Campbell County, Indiana, the prom king and queen is such a big deal, they get a $10,000 scholarship. Liz is only out to her family and close friends and the high school has very conservative and gendered ideas about who belongs at prom so it’s not the most convenient time to fall for Amanda. But what else can Liz do?

This book made me cry happy tears! And some sad tears too but mostly this book was one giant delight of a read. Liz was such a fantastic heroine and I loved every bit of her character arc as she vied for prom queen. She’s an orchestra geek who wants to be a hematologist specializing in Sickle Cell Disease, as her brother Robbie has SCD and her mother died from complications related to the illness. I was a pediatric oncology/hematology social worker and sickle cell was one of my specialties. This is the first time I can remember seeing the chronic illness portrayed in-depth in a book and I thought it was done so well.

Liz and Amanda were so cute together and I loved watching them figure things out. I loved the way their favorite band factored in. The story really delves into the ups and downs of friendship, with Liz ultimately reconnecting with her former best friend Jordan who essentially cut her off freshman year. She also has to deal with her best friend Gabi not being very best friend-like. There’s also a popular girl bully and I thought this was also handled well, with Liz getting some unexpected allies along the way. It was such a compelling story through and through. I can’t wait to see what Johnson writes next!

CW: heroine’s brother has sickle cell disease (references to medication and treatment; crisis resulting in hospitalization, recovers), heroine’s mother died from a stroke and complications from sickle cell, grief, racism, microaggressions, homophobia, bullying, forced outing, anxiety, panic attacks (past and present, heroine will throw up during really bad ones), side character’s mother died of ovarian cancer a few years ago, side character’s parents are divorcing



Felix Ever AfterFelix Ever After by Kacen Callender

This was truly magnificent. It blew me away starting with chapter 1 and didn't let up from there. The writing was stunning and the characters truly came alive. Normally I don’t want even a hint of a love triangle in my books but I was completely riveted as Felix had to make sense of his feelings toward his best friend Ezra and his enemy Declan. Felix struggles to believe he’ll ever be loved and this made for one moving story. Yes, I wept. But this ultimately has a happy ending. It just insists on ripping your heart out first.

There were moments when I wanted to take Felix aside (just block that Instagram troll!) but this was a teenager acting like a teenager, simply doing their best. And I sure was rooting for him to figure out his feelings and do what was right.

The transphobia and homophobia could be hard to read about—and I’m saying this as a cishet reader. But the author took such care in how the bullying was depicted, particularly when Felix is deadnamed. We never learn what that name is, not through that transphobic bullying or even when his largely supportive dad struggles to call him by Felix. I really appreciated the addition of the LGBTQ+ support group, as Felix questions his identity. And there were some really great secondary characters amongst his and Ezra’s group of friends.

Character notes: Felix is 17, trans, Black, and queer. Through the course of the story, Felix ends up identifying as a demiboy. Ezra is 17, bisexual, and Black-Bengali. Declan is 17 and biracial (Black-Puerto Rican mom, white Irish father.) This is set in NYC.

CW: transphobia, homophobia, bullying, Felix is deadnamed (the name is not used, only referenced), dysphoria, Felix’s mom left when he was 10 and has had little contact, top surgery scars, marijuana, underage drinking, secondary character’s father is emotionally abusive and disowned him after he came out



Girl  Serpent  ThornGirl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

I loved Bashardoust’s first novel Girls Made of Snow and Glass so I was very excited when I heard about her new book. It was inspired by the poisonous girl in a garden from Rappaccini’s Daughter and the Persian epic Shahnameh (or the Book of Kings.) 

Soraya was cursed to be poisonous to the touch and consequently hasn’t touched anyone in 18 years. She wears gloves at all times and remains in Golvahar, the oldest of the palaces. Her twin brother Sorush is the shah and about to be married to her former friend Laleh, bringing her family back to Golvahar. My heart really went out to Soraya. Can you imagine never touching anyone or being touched in return? She experienced so much loneliness and isolation with no hope of reprieve unless her curse can be broken. Because of this isolation, she knows very few people but we get to know those people fairly well as things unfold and they brought so much to story.

I don’t want to say much more than that because I loved experiencing all the twists and turns of this plot. Not everyone is who they seem and many of the characters have secrets. Add in Soraya’s determination to break the curse at almost any cost and you have a high stakes plot that doesn’t quit.

One of the most interesting parts to me was how much longing and yearning Soraya experienced and how she kept having to tamp down her hopes of ever having more. Then to not have that barrier in place anymore…whew. The story does a great job examining the line between hero and monster and what it means to belong. Soraya has to really grapple with who she is and what her power means. She can be dangerous if she wants but is that what she wants and what will it mean for her family if she acts on that? She really comes into her own as the story progresses and it was such a great evolution of her character. She’s strong but imperfect and that’s all I ever want in my heroines. I can’t wait to see what Bashardoust does next.

CW: isolation, kidnapping, threat of murder/execution, murder, villain executed his own family in the past, religious shaming

Disclosure: I received an advanced copy from Flatiron Books in exchange for an honest review.



Favorite YA of 2020 _ Leigh Kramer

Favorite Romance Novels of 2020

Never have I been more grateful to be a romance reader than this past year. During a time where almost everything was out of my control, I could count on things working out for characters and I clung to their HEAs with all my being. I've always read a mix of genres but I reached for romance by far the most this past year. It's exactly what I needed and I'm glad there's never a shortage of good recommendations.

This year I leaned into buddy reads (mostly romance) and the regular bookish conversation was truly a saving grace. I dipped into my "break glass in case of emergency" author hoard—thank you in particular to Holley Trent, Kate Clayborn, Roan Parrish, and Alexis Hall for seeing me through. I re-read some favorite romances, which is very rare for me outside of holiday romance. But I really enjoyed revisiting my faves and seeing what I picked up the second time around.

One of the things I'm most proud of was setting up a ton of Goodreads shelves, for everything from genre to tropes to things like "only one bed" and "everyone knows but us." It has made recommending books so much easier and I'm delighted others use my shelves to find good books too. 

Because I read romance the most, I came up with so, so many contenders for this list and struggled to narrow them down. Even now I feel bad for the ones that I left off this list. I'm trying to share the ones I recommended the most often or that had the most profound effect on me.

My review process continues to evolve so you'll notice some reviews include "character notes" and others don't if I read them earlier in the year. I continue to read contemporary romance the most so that's the biggest category here. The other categories are historical, fantasy and PNR, science fiction, and erotic romance. While I read a variety of heat levels, these turned out to all be open door.

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Contemporary Romance:

44792512Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn

Kate Clayborn has written an utter masterpiece. This is now one of my all-time favorites and I feel so lucky to have experienced it. The writing is gorgeous, with each word clearly chosen with care. Meg is a hand-letterer who sees the world in fonts and signs (both literal and metaphorical). The symbolism was really what sealed the deal for me. She fell in love with NYC by walking the neighborhoods and finding signs for businesses, some faded, some new. When she learns Reid hates NYC and plans to move away, she wants him to experience the city the way she does and unblock herself creatively in the process. The book is their love story but it’s also a love story about New York and about the places we call home. 

Reid was such a compelling character in his own right, him with his triple-take face, genius brain, and amazing letter/email writing skills. He was so lonely in the city. It made sense that Reid and Meg would be drawn to one another, even though they started off on the wrong foot. I loved watching them form a tentative friendship and then how it evolved from there. 

There are also so many great details beyond the NYC setting. There are pimples and periods (so relatable, Meg.) Reid always smells lightly of chlorine because he swims every morning. Meg has a Mary Poppins purse and you never know what’s going to be in there. These characters felt so alive to me and I feel slightly bereft that I cannot actually be friends with them.

This book gave me so many feelings. It made me laugh out loud. It also made me cry a few times. I just loved Meg and Reid so much and wanted them to figure it all out together. They did and it was so lovely to see. As caught up as I was in the story, I never wanted it to end. I wanted to savor it for as long as I could. Simply marvelous.

CW: hero has psoriasis, past bullying, divorced parents, emotionally abusive marriage (secondary character)

(Honorable mention to Luck of the Draw (Chance of a Lifetime #2).)



Take A Hint  Dani BrownTake A Hint, Dani Brown (The Brown Sisters #2) by Talia Hibbert

Talia Hibbert writes consistently amazing books but nothing has been able to topple A Girl Like Her as my favorite book of hers. Until now. Yep, Take A Hint, Dani Brown now reigns supreme in my heart. Both Dani and Zaf were phenomenal characters who stole my heart. Dani’s confidence is juxtaposed against her refusal to have relationships, which made this an extra delicious friends-to-lovers fake relationship. Zaf somehow always knew how to approach her in a way that would not scare her off (LOL mostly, at least.) And it was because of their friendship that he could open up to her in turn as he reexamined his mental health practices. Neither character is perfect but they are indeed perfect together. There’s so much that I loved: Zaf’s love of romance novels, his nonprofit teaching boys about sports while addressing mental health and dismantling toxic masculinity, her badassery in her field of expertise, his murder face, when he buys a muffin and leaves it for Dani because he knows she wants one, when Dani makes him a charm to help him sleep…the list goes on. I’m smiling just thinking about it! The secondary characters are also wonderful and I’m super looking forward to Eve’s book next.

Character notes: Dani is Black British, bisexual, “on the chubbier side,” 27, and a witch. She’s a professor and working on her PhD. Zaf is Pakistani British, Muslim (mostly non-practicing), and 31. He’s a security guard and former rugby player. This is set in England.

CW: hero’s father and brother died in a car accident years ago, grief, anxiety, past depression, panic attack, insomnia, heroine’s ex cheated, slut-shaming (countered), wrist injury, ableist language



41zjBB8Sc4LOpen House (Uptown #2) by Ruby Lang

This was such a lovely, delightful rivals to lovers romance that approached identity, grief, and gentrification in really interesting ways. It also made me very hungry.

Ty clings to his identity as someone who doesn’t get involved and is free to go, despite being so involved with the garden co-op. Magda, on the other hand, pushes back against the role her family has consigned her. They see each other so clearly and believe in each other, once they get past what’s dividing them, at least. Watching Ty take stock of his life and figure out where to take action and then Magda confronting her sisters was so wonderful. Plus, they have great chemistry.

I also really loved the exploration of grief and loss through Ty and Byron's characters, with the ways we can try to protect ourselves from caring again and thus not have anyone or anything to lose. The arcs for both men were great but especially seeing how choosing to grieve and, in one case, let go, changes their orientation to the neighborhood. It was such a deft touch.

CW: past death of mother (cancer), past death of aunt, microaggressions, brief reference to a pedophile architect




Just One MoreJust One More by Jodie Slaughter

I was hooked on this Valentine’s Day romance from the moment Whitney and Victor met during their Uber Pool ride. (Some people have all the rideshare luck.) Victor is an absolute romantic and not shy about it. Whitney thinks it’ll be a fun one-night stand. But before they realize it, one night turns into two and then three. There’s so much more to their relationship, if only they’ll admit it. There are some super hot scenes featuring excellent dirty talk. Plus, Victor, a barber, allows Whitney to shave him one morning and it was equal parts poignant, meaningful, and charged. Just an absolute delight of a novella!

CW: past death of grandfather, marijuana







Love UnsolicitedLove Unsolicited by Alexandra Warren 

Funmi put this on my radar months before I finally read it and I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner. HOLY HOTNESS. From the moment Joella and Keanu meet, when she’s trying to con him, no less, I was enthralled by their banter and their give and take. It’s set up for them to have a casual, no-strings relationship and also involves him paying her, not for sex but for her time. But of course they catch feelings! And watching that happen was downright delicious.

CW: past parental infidelity, heroine’s father died of a heart attack shortly after they met, heroine’s mother died of an aneurism, unprotected sex, ableist language








Written in the StarsWritten in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur

This was presented to me as an FF Pride And Prejudice retelling but it’s more inspired by Darcy and Elizabeth’s personality types than the plot, for which I am grateful. Faithful P&P retellings have their place but I’m much more interested in seeing the character archetypes in other settings.

In this version, Darcy is a buttoned up actuary and Elle is a social media astrologist. Darcy’s brother Brendon is Elle’s business partner—his dating app One True Pairing has just hired Elle’s company to provide an astrological component. He wants nothing more than for his sister to find love and he’s constantly setting her up on blind dates and she’s had enough of it. Darcy and Elle start off on the wrong foot and the date goes poorly and that should be that. Only Darcy decides fake dating Elle will get her brother off her back for a while. Elle’s not completely convinced but she would love for her family to think she’s not a complete mess and Darcy is exactly the kind of person they admire. They come up with rules and then it’s only a matter of time for the rules to get chucked out of the window.

Darcy and Elle were so fully drawn and I really empathized with their respective hopes and fears and the way those things got tangled up in one another. Darcy is terrified of falling in love after a bad breakup. She doesn’t want to give anyone a chance to break her heart again but Elle makes her feels things no one else ever has. Elle, on the other hand, has dreamed about finding her person her whole life and she’s all in once she and Darcy to give their fake relationship a real shot, even though she’s worried Darcy doesn’t believe in love.

There were so many cute details. They have different texting styles! Elle bought Darcy a scraggly Christmas tree to cheer her up! The way Elle sees the stars! Elle drags Darcy into a thrift store! Darcy’s secret soap opera fandom! Brendon’s dreamy eyed romanticism! Plus, I loved Elle’s relationship with her best friend and business partner Margot.

Character notes: Elle is bisexual. I did not note Darcy identifying as a particular sexuality. They are both white. This is set in Seattle.

CW: toxic family, past death of grandmother, heroine's ex cheated on her, heroine’s mother dealt with depression after divorcing, heroine’s father cheated on her mother

Disclosure: I received an advanced copy from Avon in exchange for an honest review.



The HitmanThe Hitman (The Family #2) by Katrina Jackson

Allow me to introduce you to my new favorite Katrina Jackson novel. I’m smiling just thinking about this ridiculously hot Italian mafia romance. Now normally if a heroine found out her fiance was cheating on her with her best friend and a stripper on her wedding day and come to find out she’s been in a very so-so relationship for 6 years, I’d be rooting for her to go to therapy instead of finding an HEA with someone new. But in this case, I was ready for Giulio to sweep Zahra off her feet from the moment he saw her at the pool. Yes, he’s a hitman and yes, there are a few attempts on their lives. Giulio keeps trying to tell her that he’s a bad man. We don’t get a ton of detail about what the mafia actually does but we do know Giulio works for Sal and keeps people in line. But Zahra figures out pretty quickly that he’s a man who does bad things, not the other way around. And holy hell were they on fire together! Zahra is simply a fantastic heroine and I loved the Italian lessons Giulio gave her. Also, there is a truly A+ shower scene. Not to mention the train scene. Loved it from start to finish! I can’t wait to get Zahra’s sister Zoe’s story next.

Character notes: Zahra is Black American. Giulio is white Italian.

CW: heroine’s fiancé cheated on her, attempted murder, murder, hero's arm is grazed by a bullet, alcohol, hangover, family planning discussion, heroine says she pregnant to prove her connection to the hero to someone else but she's not



You Had Me At HolaYou Had Me At Hola by Alexis Daria

Alexis Daria proves her writing chops once again with this contemporary romance. Not only do we have Jasmine and Ashton slowly falling for one another, we get the contrast of their fictitious characters Carmen and Victor falling for each other on their bilingual TV show Carmen In Charge. Various scenes from the Carmen In Charge script are woven in and they do marvelous work, showing the actors wrestling with their feelings for one another even as their characters wrestle with their own emotions. It made for an even deeper, more delicious reading experience.

Jasmine and Ashton start off on a meet-disaster when he spills coffee on her. Because of his own anxiety and the secret son he’s hidden from everyone, Ashton keeps to himself, making for tension between him and the cast. It’s a delicate dance because even as Ashton and Jasmine are drawn to one another, they each have valid reasons for not wanting to get involved with a costar. Ashton only wants to keep his son safe but his efforts have built a wall between him and everyone else. More than that, it’s not sustainable, as his father (and Yadiel’s primary caregiver) keeps telling him. Jasmine, on the other hand, is trying to take a break from relationships and focus on being a kickass leading lady.

I loved watching them fall for one another anyway. There’s such chemistry between them and I loved watching them explore it, even as they tentatively examined the possibility of more. The story includes the use of an intimacy coordinator on set, normalizes therapy as a part of their HEA (which was crucial for my ability to believe in it due to Ashton’s anxiety), and normalizes the use of lube. More than that, this was just a fun read. It made me smile and it made me eager to read Jasmine’s cousins' stories next. The primas need their own spotlight!

Character notes: Jasmine is 30 and second generation Puerto Rican-Filipina American. Ashton is 38 and Puerto Rican. Ashton’s son Yadiel is 8. This is set in NYC.

CW: heroine’s ex cheated, anxiety, industry colorism, alcohol, past stalker, slut-shaming, reference to Hurricane Maria, TV character has depression and anxiety and self-medicates with alcohol



PansiesPansies by Alexis Hall

Alexis Hall is one of my rainy day authors and this was the perfect year to dip into my hoard. I have yet to read a book by him that didn't blow me away and it was hard to know which one to highlight here. One of Hall's great gifts as a writer is his ability to subvert tropes and make unlikely premises work and that's certainly the case with Pansies, a bully romance. I’ve not read many of these because most what’s out there is holy problematic. Pansies is a remarkable exception.

Alfie has no recollection of bullying Fen when they were kids. In his mind, it’s boys being boys but through the first part of the book, we watch him grapple to understand the effect he had on Fen and then figure out how he can make it up to him. Yes, he’s enamored with Fen and wants a real chance after learning Fen’s identity post-one night stand but he also wants to make things right. And Fen really makes him work for it. He’s always been drawn to Alfie in spite of what he put him through and he doesn’t know why he wants him still.

I’ve thought about why this pairing worked as well as it did and it might be because the power differential has somewhat switched now. Alfie only came out as gay two years prior. He has a lot of toxic masculinity and internalized homophobia to work through compliments of his family and he’s also trying to learn what it means to be a gay man. For instance, his best friend and ex-boyfriend Greg never wants to settle down but Alfie yearns for a partner despite what Greg says. Fen shows him another example of what it means to be queer and has the promise of being that partner, even though there are fits and starts along the way. Alfie is a bit of a lovable puppy. He owns up to his mistakes but he sure makes a lot of them. And yet you can’t help but want to be in his corner anyway.

Fen, on the other hand, is sharply brilliant and refuses to apologize for who he is. He’s pretty much always been out as queer and he suffered for it as a child. He’s not going to let anyone make him feel bad about himself or his sexuality, especially not Alfie. He’s grieving the death of his mother—this was especially moving, thanks to interspersed letters he writes to her. He feels frozen between honoring his mother’s legacy at her flower shop and the life he used to lead in London. He’s a bit lost and Alfie’s confidence is a bolster.

The whole story builds in such a loving, albeit heart-wrenching at times, way. I adored Alfie and Fen together and seeing how they were able to figure out where their life together might go. The secondary characters are equally wonderful, from Gothshelley who works at the flower shop to Alfie’s best friends Greg and Kitty. It’s such a warm and welcoming world, one you might not expect with a bully romance but that is the magic of Alexis Hall’s writing.

Character notes: Alfie is gay. Fen is queer. They are both 30 and white. This is set in South Shields and London, England.

CW: past bullying, homophobia, internalized homophobia, biphobia, past death of mother (assisted suicide, early on-set Alzheimers), grief, vandalism with homophobic slur, diet culture, ex had OCD (described as Pure O), pregnancy announcement from minor character

(Honorable mention to Boyfriend Material and How To Belong With A Billionaire (Arden St. Ives #3).)



41dhV0q-6qLEquivalent Exchange by Christina C. Jones

Keris and Laken were such compelling characters. They felt so real to me, in part because they’re dealing with real issues (domestic violence and ectopic pregnancy for her, the death of his brother years ago and his dad’s health issues for him) and trying to figure out what they are to each other. I loved that Keris is 36 and Laken is 40. They’ve both gone through some things and bring experience and wisdom into the relationship.

Laken is focused on starting the nano-brewery component of his brewhouse. I really wish I could try his beers because they all sounded amazing. Keris meets him while he’s bartending at Night Shift, they have a one night stand, he realizes she’s a talented graphic designer and hires her. She’s looking for a fresh start after breaking things off with her long-time boyfriend, who is a real piece of work. They worked together and so she loses her job once she breaks up with him. She does not want to get involved with someone else that she’s working for but Laken proves he’s nothing like her ex. I thought the power dynamics were handled really well.

There’s some great symbolism and discussion around the idea of fate and soul mates. I really like how this came about through Laken’s grief and feeling as if his brother was still talking to him and guiding his life. There are some truly heartbreaking moments (see content warnings) but I felt like the story was well balanced on the whole. While Keris in particular has experienced abuse and trauma throughout her life, it’s not exploited on the page and we even get to see her in therapy, which was wonderful. I loved her therapist. Laken also has hardships of his own and this resulted in a really moving arc. As sad as the story could be in places, it also made me laugh out loud. There’s a great sense of humor and I loved the way Keris and Laken interacted with one another. They were so good together! Such a completely satisfying contemporary romance.

CW: domestic violence, heroine’s boyfriend raped her, past ectopic pregnancy, past death of hero’s brother (overdose), grief, past child abuse, hero divorced 5 years ago, hero and his ex-wife dealt with infertility, hero’s left leg has a metal rod and he has a facial scar from a car accident, HIPAA violation (heroine’s doctor disclosed her medical information to her boyfriend without her consent or knowledge), slut-shaming (countered), heroine was adopted and her adoptive parents died when she was young, ableist language (“spazzing”), pregnant ex, concern of Alzheimer’s, Highlight brackets for spoiler: [death of father (undiagnosed brain tumor, heart failure, seizure)]



Spoiler AlertSpoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

I adore Olivia Dade’s books but I wasn’t quite sure how this one would work for me. I’m not a fanfic person, for one—nothing against it but I don’t really have any fandoms because I rarely watch TV or movies anymore and also I’d rather spend my reading time on books. Lie of omission plots generally don’t work for me either. And yet, Spoiler Alert defied all my reservations and completely won me over. That’s all because of the marvelous characters. Both Marcus and April are layered and lovable and their arcs were incredibly satisfying. Plus, there’s a delicious meta element with fanfic, DMs, scripts, and book excerpts sprinkled in between chapters.

I tend to laugh a lot while reading Olivia’s books but in this case, I cried more than I laughed out loud. The plot was emotionally gripping and Marcus’s plight and April’s hurts kept ripping my heart out. Marcus is living a double life on two different levels: his actor persona vs who he is and then April not knowing that he is also her Gods of the Gates fanfic friend and beta reader. April is confident in so many ways but she’s also had to deal with fatshaming and fatphobia in past relationships and from her parents. April and Marcus, in fact, both have toxic parents and they have to figure out what to do about them over the course of the story.

And then there’s how wonderful Marcus and April are together. I loved seeing Marcus become more and more comfortable being fully himself the longer he was around April. And I loved how fully he saw and appreciated April as a fat woman. They have amazing chemistry, making for some steamy scenes. And while things fall apart, as they generally do in lie of omission plots, the way they came back together was perfect. I swear, this book healed something inside of me.

Character notes: Marcus is a 39 year old shy, dyslexic actor. April is a 36 year old fat redheaded geologist. It is mostly set in San Francisco and the Bay Area, with April moving to Berkeley.

CW: fatshaming and fatphobia (countered), anxiety, hero is dyslexic but was not diagnosed until he dropped out of college, hero experienced a great deal of shaming and ableism from his parents about his undiagnosed learning disability, toxic parents, heroine is estranged from her father, Hollywood sexism and misogyny, secondary character has ADHD, microaggressions toward secondary characters, mild gender essentialism (mostly of the “smell like man” variety), references to fictional characters who experience infidelity, self-immolate, and prepare to die by suicide (god intervenes for the latter), fictional battle scenes, death of fictional characters

Disclosure: the author and I are friendly online.



Heated RivalryHeated Rivalry (Game Changers #2) by Rachel Reid

This is hands down one of the best enemies-to-lovers romances I’ve ever read! It kicks off with a bang and then takes us back to when Shane (biracial white-Japanese Canadian) and Ilya (Russian) are 17 and meet for the first time at the World Junior Hockey Championships. They’re pitted against each other professionally and when they actually meet, they rub each other the exact wrong way, thus kicking off their mutual antipathy.

The way this was structured fascinated me to no end. We know from the beginning that at some point they start hooking up but they really don’t like each other. On top of that, while Ilya knows he’s bi, Shane has never thought much about his sexuality being something other than straight until Ilya. He has a lot of internalized homophobia, in part because of the rampant homophobia within hockey and what coming out would mean for his career, and one of the best parts of his arcs is watching him grow to understand and then accept that he’s gay. Both men are closeted but there is no forced outing.

Regardless of how much Ilya and Shane hate each other on and off the ice, there’s so much heat simmering under the surface and for much of the story, they don't understand why. I seriously loved these two goons as they tried to figure out why they were drawn to each other as much as they tried to resist each other. After years of only hooking up in hotel rooms or an apartment Shane keeps just for that purpose, their intimacy grows and there are all these lovely hints that things are changing, even while they’re completely befuddled by their feelings and terrified of what they mean. My heart grew three sizes by the end. 

The last 30% made me laugh out loud a ton, particularly Ilya's perspective. But make no mistake: this story is angsty through and through and gave me so many feelings. It really swept me away and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come.

CW: homophobia/homophobic slurs on the ice, anti-LGBTQ+ laws and sentiment in Russia, internalized homophobia, Ilya’s father is emotionally abusive, mostly off-page decline and death of father (Alzheimer’s), complicated grief, Ilya smokes cigarettes, xenophobia/anti-Russian sentiment, male pejoratives, side character’s wife has multiple pregnancies over the years, brief concern of spinal cord injury, concussion, Ilya’s mother died by suicide when he was 12 years old and he was the one who found her



Liquor & LaundryLiquor & Laundry by Tasha L. Harrison

Holy moly did I ever love this friends to lovers romance between dressmaker Haddie and NFL star Ahmad. They were such a great match. The way she shows up for him! The way he addresses her insecurities!!! Sweet and tender and HOT.

There’s no dark moment which gives Haddie and Ahmad time to work through whether a long-term relationship is possible, given his job. Two great people who finally have a chance to act on their mutual crush and see what happens. And Ahmad is great about communicating how he feels to Haddie, even while recognizing this level of forthcoming is new for him. The way he cares for her and assuages her fears brought me to tears. He loves her “too muchness.” I adored this from start to finish.

Character notes: Hadassah is a 31 year old fat Black woman with a nose piercing. Her dad is Nigerian. Ahmad is a 31 year old Black man.

CW: past grade 3 concussion, concern about CTE, fat-shaming (countered), alcohol





Wild OnesWild Ones by Kristine Wyllys

Whew! This story grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. I was completely captivated. The characters came alive and I really wanted to know what they were going to do next. Bri was such an unpredictable character that the story stayed unpredictable too. That made for gripping reading! It was great to read a realistic story about people on the edge of the poverty line. The writing was absolutely incredible. There were so many good lines.

It was gritty and visceral. Half the time I didn’t know if I should root for Bri and Luke to be together or go their separate ways. Bri was a wounded animal and Luke is an underground boxer and the combination could be explosive. This made for an intense arc for Bri and it completely worked for me. Perhaps if Bri had delved more into the abuse she experienced, I would have needed more of a healing arc. But we only get the outlines of what happened and she clearly wants to keep the past in the past, even if what happened to her is why she acts the way she does. It felt true to life. Plenty of people never get therapy and never deal with their past traumas and they still deserve to be loved too. Do I wish she and Luke knew how to treat each other a bit better than they do? Yes. But fighting and screwing works for them, at least for right now. And honestly, I did really like them together and the way they really got each other. They both needed someone in their corner.

The ending is more of an HFN but that might just be my bias toward them wanting to get therapy. I certainly hope they'll be happy together forever. It's basically them against the world at this point. For more about this book from a trauma/survivor perspective, I really appreciated Xan/Corey’s review, which is how the book got on my radar in the first place. I greatly miss their voice and wish I’d been able to discuss this one with them when I finished.

Character notes: Bri is 22 and a waitress at a bar. Luke is an underground boxer; no age given. Both are white.

CW: mugging, hero is an underground boxer, heroine is attacked and her shoulder is dislocated, heroine is beat up and hospitalized (two broken rubs, broken wrist, sprained ankle), hero puts heroine’s attacker in the hospital, hero is arrested for assault with intent ((view spoiler)), concussion, unsafe sex, heroine’s father was alcoholic and abusive, heroine’s father sexually assaulted her (it is briefly on page in the first chapter), minor characters who are addicts, past overdose of a friend, heroine was homeless after she ran away, bar fight, secondary character with facial scar, reference to heroine’s brother who died by suicide, police raid with gunshots fired, alcohol, cigarettes, fatphobic joke (not challenge), dated language 


Historical Romance:

For My Lady's HeartFor My Lady's Heart by Laura Kinsale

My first Kinsale did not disappoint! I've gone on to read five other Kinsales this past year and For My Lady's Heart remains my favorite, followed closely by Shadowheart (seek out content warnings as needed.). This is Old School Romance but it holds up really well. (I cannot say the same for all of Kinsale's work, however.) The characters speak Middle English, which can take some adjusting to at first but it adds such a lovely lyrical quality to the dialogue. But if Middle English feels like too much for you, Kinsale released a modern condensed version alongside the original in the 2011 ebook.

The story was inspired by Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (King Arthur). We meet a noble knight and a heroine who has just had to survive political intrigue her whole life and doesn’t trust anyone. Ruck has a whole lot of feelings, not to mention he’s been celibate since his wife joined a nunnery 13 years ago. He’s served Melanthe on some level as she interfered with him joining his wife’s fate but when fate brings their paths back together, he begins acting as her bodyguard as they travel across the country.

Melanthe is prickly af and for good reason. Gian Navona has killed everyone she’s ever cared about since he decided he was going to marry her someday. She’s doing everything she can to avoid that particular cruelty, while making sure Allegretto, Navona’s son and her constant shadow, stays unaware of her plans while also appeasing the King and hopefully getting herself to a nunnery where she can spend the rest of her days. All I’m saying is don’t mess with Melanthe because she will put you in her place.

There is a slow burn between Ruck and Melanthe and once it ignites, it’s everything. This book is really all about the buildup and it’s so worth it. Ruck has put those years of celibacy to good use in learning the desires of the flesh. The last paragraph/sentence of chapter 16 is one of the best I've ever read. I’m still fanning myself! All hail, Ruck, hero unparalleled.

Gorgeous writing, through and through. I laughed, I cried, I sure enjoyed the journey. 

CW for For My Lady's Heart: sexism, violence, references to plague, side character was castrated, threat of murder, threat of assault, murder, poison, heroine was wed at age 12 to someone 30 years older (he did not have sex with her until 16, which was possibly generous for the time, and they only had sex three times), brief reference to heroine’s baby being smothered/murdered, older man obsessed with heroine decided she’ll marry only him and he’s murdered anyone who has shown interest in her for the last several years



HoneytrapHoneytrap by Aster Glenn Gray

A wonderful MM Cold War romance between a sweet FBI agent and a Soviet agent, told in three parts. It doesn’t hide from the hard stuff but overall this was a delightful read. Daniel and Gennady have a major barrier between them, given their countries are literal enemies. They may be trying to solve a case together but they’re also there to spy on one another. It would do neither any good to trust the other man. But over the course of a road trip across the US, a friendship develops in spite of everything and then something more. Both characters are fantastic and I adored them both. They have such a great rapport and banter and their interactions made me so happy. So many scenes made me laugh out loud, often thanks to Gennady. At the same time, things could be incredibly fraught and angsty (those external conflicts are very real!) and I was just yearning for the barriers to disappear. I had no idea how the HEA would come together and the story certainly makes them work for it but what a ride.

The story is set in 1959, 1975, and 1992. We get to know them well and see how they change over time, as well as what the various obstacles were in each time period. It was fascinating on so many levels! I loved all the America vs Soviet plot developments. Even Gennady's fascination with American words and his criticism of capitalism. Daniel was never allowed to fully villainize the USSR. The US gets called out on its own atrocities. We come off even worse, in some ways. Because the story is set over many years, we get to see the system Gennady is working within and then what his options are after the USSR falls.  And then against that landscape, the story addresses what things were like for LGBTQ+ people in both countries, as well as general American understanding of sexuality. 

In the end, life brings Gennady and Daniel back together and it makes for quite a satisfying ending. Aster Glenn Gray is truly an author to watch. She takes risks and tries different subgenres and I always wind up impressed. She was already an auto-buy author for me and now I really can’t wait to see where she goes from here.

Character notes: At the start of the book, Daniel is 27 and Gennady is 24. They are both bisexual, polyamorous, and white. Daniel is American and Gennady is from the USSR but Polish by birth. 

Main CW: workplace sexual harassment and abusive boss (it’s not clear how far Gennady’s boss went but he is dealing with the trauma of it), PTSD, internalized homophobia, biphobia, homophobia, homophobic slur, stabbing, past suicidal ideation, war references (Daniel fought in the Korean War for the Army), alcohol, past intimate partner violence, ex dies by suicide off-page, Daniel’s dad died of a heart attack and his mom in a car accident (years apart but grief is handled on-page), grief, divorce



The Lord I LeftThe Lord I Left (The Secrets of Charlotte Street #3) by Scarlett Peckham

It was such a hard call whether this was my favorite Scarlett Peckham or The Rakess but The Lord I Left ultimately came out as the winner and it's my favorite of the series. (However, The Rakess is a credit to the genre and is not to be missed. Be sure to seek out content warnings, if needed.)

Henry is a Methodist minister working on a report about how to handle London’s sex workers. He truly wants to help them, although he largely sees them as sinners who have lost their way instead of people who chose their work or who are simply trying to survive. Alice, a whipping house apprentice, wants nothing to do with him but when she receives word that her mother is dying and he offers to give her a ride home, there’s nothing but delicious forced proximity and one mishap after another. Henry and Alice are both more than they seem and I loved watching them discover each other.

Peckham is a gorgeous writer. Whenever we’re in Henry’s POV, we get to see and experience his needs vs. wants through parenthetical asides. He’s constantly repressing his desires and trying to lasso even his thoughts into submission. The parentheses where he acknowledges this or admonishes himself allow us to experience his inner tension in a very real way. He keeps denying himself, from never eating sugar or meat to how little he sleeps to squashing the faintest hint of a lustful thought.

The religious aspect was so well-balanced. I have many complicated (read: negative) feelings about the inspirational romance subgenre when it’s limited to Christian fiction. However, I love when general market romance explores faith because it’s usually incredibly nuanced and, more importantly, rooted in reality. Henry was the right amount of sincere and earnest but never tipped over into proselytizing.

Henry and Alice have incredible chemistry. There’s a foot-washing scene that is very Mary Magdalene and they almost get it on in a church. There’s also a fantastic scene in which Alice tells off Henry’s horrible father, which was much needed. But perhaps my favorite part is the letter Henry sends to Alice toward the end and the decision he makes regarding his report. What a wondrous transformation of a marvelous man!

CW: parent pretending to be dying, past death of father, grief, plight of sex workers, toxic father and brother, snowstorm, heroine’s mother slaps her, slut-shaming (challenged), carriage accident resulting in broken arm, brief reference to a child falling into a frozen pond and being rescued



The Widow of Rose HouseThe Widow of Rose House by Diana Biller

This was one of those books where I knew I loved it within a few pages. When I first heard about this story, I didn’t think it was for me. The cover is rather misleading and I’m not much of a ghost story person. But friend after friend raved about it and Aarya’s wonderful review for Smart Bitches sealed the deal. I’m so glad I gave it a chance!

First, let’s talk about our heroine Alva. I admired her so much. She was failed by everyone in her life, first her parents in marrying her off to an abusive jackhole, and then the man she married, who was only using her for her wealth. She endured the relationship for 10 years before leaving him and he still made her life hell, spreading all kinds of lascivious rumors. Then luckily he died. There are references to the abuse throughout the story so bear that in mind if that is a trigger for you. I was very relieved Alain was dead, although she still has to deal with his vile brother so she’s not fully free of that family.

Liefdehuis is her chance to start over. She has a contract to write an interior design book, in spite of her notoriety. Her interior design philosophy and even learning about the history of interior design, especially upper vs middle class, was so fascinating. Things seem like they’re finally moving in the right direction…only there’s a ghost and now the workers refuse to come near the house. She doesn’t want to ask Sam for help but she has no other option and spending time around him makes her want to hope for more. But it’s such a big risk and Alva doesn’t think she can do it, no matter how much light he brings into her life. The angst of this!

It’s no surprise Sam stole my heart. He’s a sunshiny dream and my absolute catnip. I had forgotten how much I love absent-minded professors/oblivious-to-their-handsomeness-heroes. At 7% in, a maid sighed as he walked in the house and he was like, "aw, she's glad she's back inside where it's warm.” It cracked me up! I was one smitten kitten and he proceeded to win me—and Alva—over time again as the story proceeded. Sam has had a very easy life and it’s hard for him to fully understand what she’s overcome and what is on the line. But he’s so good and patient with her, upfront about his feelings but not pushy. And that patience pays off in the end and I was so happy for them both.

Concerning the ghost, there are a couple of scenes where characters are haunted, one of which did freak me out. I am a wimpy reader and this stayed on the acceptable side of freaked out for me. It helped that Sam was so curious about the ghost and wanted to know more about it and that he had no fears for the ghost to use against him. I really appreciated how the ghost story was resolved and found it to be rather moving. It tied together really well with the story as a whole.

CW: past domestic violence, ghost, institutionalization (secondary character), mental health, threats of violence, past gaslighting, ableist language



Paranormal and Fantasy Romance:

A Wolf ApartThe Legend of All Wolves #2-4 by Maria Vale

The first book in this series was a favorite of 2018 but I never got around to reading more of the series, until my friend Vicky picked up The Last Wolf and we started buddy reading the rest. The Legend of All Wolves series is one of the best paranormal romance series out there. Maria Vale does such fascinating things with her world-building, starting with the fact that in this world, wolves shift to be humans, not the other way around. Plus, the Pack HEA matters just as much as the individual couple's HEA. (This series is best read in order.)

In A Wolf Apart, Elijah is the Alpha of his Echelon but he has not lived with the Pack for over a couple of decades. He’s a corporate lawyer and an empty shell who doesn’t necessarily understand how empty his life is. I simultaneously wanted to hug him and shake him. He's pretending to be human, going through the motions of what he thinks humans do. And unfortunately, his models for that are the actual worst humans so what he does comes across as extra gross but also extra sad because he doesn't see the disconnect. At the same time, we can see behind his mask and know that’s not who he really is. He’s simply trying to survive his environment, especially because his Alpha Evie refuses to let him come back to the Pack. It made me unbearably sad for Elijah. He was so desperate to return to the Pack and slowly dying inside.

Then along comes Thea who sees right through him, turns down his overtures, and calls him out on his BS. She's not going to compromise on her need for independence either. It was GLORIOUS. However, the Pack is forbidden not only from mating with humans but telling them about their identity and location. But Elijah is determined to woo her, especially after he screws up, and I loved everything about the way their relationship ultimately came together. 

This story ended on such an emotionally satisfying note. I may or may not have teared up at the end. Elijah and Thea have an unconventional relationship but it works for them and it’s also respectful of the Pack’s needs. I also really liked that neither wants to have children, regardless of it being a biological impossibility between them.

Note: this series deals with miscarriage and pregnancy. The whole Pack is impacted when one of them gets pregnant. There are more dangers around pregnancy: the female needs to shift back to wolf form before labor begins or she and/or the pups will die. The Pack comes alongside the couple and they are all in it together but it’s all very fraught.

CW for A Wolf Apart: violence, disordered eating (hero throws up after eating Offland meat), eye injury, side character is pregnant and gives birth, side character believes one her pups is stillborn but the pup recovers (other three pups are healthy), heroine is attacked with a knife (recovers), side character had a miscarriage and is depressed, hero’s assistant is murdered, death of Pack member who was attacked, descriptions of animals being hunted as prey, xenophobia, bigotry, reference to death of Great North Alpha (happened last book), heroine has scar on her abdomen and burn mark on her forearm, heroine’s uncle has prosthetic leg (army injury), heroine’s parents died in DUI (father driving drunk), heroine’s brother died by suicide, heroine’s friend died in college, minor character accidentally shoots himself and dies, hero’s law partner died by suicide, minor character with dementia gets lost in the woods (recovered), ableism, side character’s hand was impaled with dog spike (previous book)



His BeautyHis Beauty by Jack Harbon

This is a Beauty and the Beast retelling where the Beast stays a beast. That premise will either immediately hook you or it won't. I was in the “need it now” camp when the author announced it on Twitter and I’m thrilled to say this was a magnificent monster romance.

The Beast was so beastly in every way and I absolutely wanted him. I suspect my childhood crush on the Fox in Robin Hood plays a part in this, along with the Disney version of BATB. There’s just something compelling about literal animal instincts and I’m not going to question my love of monster romance. Team Horns is going to be very happy about one specific scene. This novella is HOT!

Now, are there loose threads and underdeveloped plot lines? Yes. But it mattered not because of the hotness and because of the heroine’s arc. Her evolution is the reason for reading this story. I bow down to Isla! I don’t want to spoil one part of what happens so just enjoy the ride.

This was a bit more violent than I expected. There are two men who threaten to rape Isla but she manages to escape and kill them. Then there’s a violent mob storming the manor and those descriptions got a bit gorey for my taste. But it was cathartic to watch them kill the bad guys so the way it was written made complete sense.

This did not adhere to every beat of BATB, for which I was glad. But Harbon still gives us a great library scene and so many great moments of the Beast in all his glory. I absolutely loved it!

Character notes: The Beast of Highburn (also known as Lowen Lovell) is described as having a “lion-like head, protruding snout, downward curved white horns, and startlingly human eyes.” His eyes “glow an unnatural shade of yellow” and he has black claws that retract into his paws. He is indeed a beast.

CW: death of father on-page (some kind of stomach ailment), grief, imprisonment, sexual harassment, threat of rape, murder in self-defense, attempted strangulation (heroine is able to break away), mob violence, bestiality (although is it bestiality if the beast is sentient and consents?), gaslighting and threat of institutionalization by secondary characters, sword fight, reference to possible infertility due to cross-species issues, threat of suicide, wolf attack (one wolf is killed in self-defense), past death of parents, hero’s father abused his mother, reference to past death of a child



A Touch of Stone and SnowA Touch of Stone and Snow (A Gathering of Dragons #2) by Milla Vane

It’s a hard call but this is my favorite of the series. As much as I love Maddek and Yvenne, Aerax's unwavering love for Lizzan is what puts this one to the top for me. It made me cry but it also made me laugh out loud. It's intense in places and yet I couldn't read it fast enough.

This is a second chance romance. Aerax and Lizzan were in love before he became the bastard prince and his duties and secrets took him away from her. And then he did not stand up for her during a crucial moment and she left Koth, where her name no longer exists. They haven't seen each other for years and Lizzan would prefer to keep it that way. When their paths cross again on the road, a reckoning must be had because Aerax has never stopped wanting her. The pining is intense! Their feelings for each other, even though he broke her heart, are never really in question but there are massive barriers in the form of external conflicts. I really wasn't sure how it would all come together, especially since the goddess Vela said Lizzan was going to die when the first snowfall comes. 

Milla Vane accomplishes so much here. Both characters have compelling arcs, especially since Lizzan, who is a soft-hearted warrior, has to confront her painful feelings instead of drowning them in her alcoholism. Aerax has been carrying an awful burden for years and is willing to become a villain to do what’s right. But he’s such an innately good guy, in spite of decades of mistreatment by Kothians. He may love few people and be loved by few in return but he loves fiercely and does what’s right. There is so much sexual tension in this book, it’s palpable. This book officially has the hottest bathhouse scene I've ever read. Also the most heart-wrenching. Whew. I was into it. So much steamy goodness.

Saving the best for last: Aerax’s snow cat Caeb who absolutely stole the show whenever he was on page. I adored him and the way he took any excuse to nudge Aerax and Lizzan to be together.

Character notes: Lizzan is a 27 year old mercenary. Aerax is the 28 year old bastard prince of Koth.

CW: heroine is an alcoholic and goes through detox, Highlight brackets for spoiler: [death of main character who is then resurrected], past red fever, past massacre, past death of loved ones in battle, the left side of heroine’s face is scarred, hero briefly refers to being raped as a child, brief reference to a secondary character’s rape, secondary character was imprisoned and tortured, past scalping, the Destroyer enslaved children for his army, classism, description of goddess giving birth, hero’s mother was suicidal in the past



Deal With The DemonDeal with the Demon by Chace Verity

This was just the sweetest romance between a single mother and a cinnamon roll demon. YES: cinnamon roll demon. All Drystan wants is to be a good partner to Heidi and to help her achieve success during the 28 days he’s at her beck and call. He cooks, he cleans, he creates artwork to help make her house a home. He makes her favorite treat for breakfast (cinnamon rolls!) and knows exactly how she takes her coffee. Heidi was such a good-hearted soul who deserved to catch a break. I could viscerally relate to wanting someone to help carry the load. (Now accepting tips on how to summon a Success Demon like Drystan.) I just loved every part of this soft story. I wasn’t sure what would happen to Drystan after their 28 days together ended and really appreciated how it resolved.

Character notes: Heidi is a 32 year old bisexual single mother. Drystan is a centuries old Success demon and artist. He has gray skin, horns, and he’s very large and scarred. His eyes change color depending on his mood and the happier he is, the warmer he gets. When asked about pronouns, he says “he, they, neither, either.” Savannah is 13 and Sebastian is 14 and starts dating a boy. This is set in Calgary, Alberta.

CW: heroine divorced 4 years ago, kids’s dad is not in the picture by his choice, concern of sexual harassment while on the train, heroine’s family disowned her when she got pregnant one month after graduating high school, secondary character’s wife is dealing with complications from surgery



Science Fiction Romance:

Strange LoveStrange Love by Ann Aguirre

This was such a refreshing sci-fi romance! We’ve got a cinnamon roll beta alien hero with self-esteem problems and a heroine who was kind of a nobody on Earth but on Barath she’s seen as an asset and a desirable nest-guardian. Zylar accidentally kidnaps Beryl and her dog Snaps, believing one of the creatures is his intended, and by the time they all figure out the truth, it’s too late and they’re far from Earth. They decide to make the best of it and compete to be Chosen. 

Beryl’s response to the whole situation struck me as how you really would respond if you found out you’d been kidnapped by aliens. There’s so much they don’t understand about each other. They do, luckily, have a translator implanted so they can understand each other’s language. But still, Zylar thinks of Beryl and her dog as hair creatures and Beryl doesn’t think much of the insect-like alien with his exoskeleton and beak and talons. There are some funny moments, especially when they’re trying to make sense of each other. Zylar refers to Beryl’s “talking place” meaning her mouth and “grabbers” meaning her hands. Plus, there’s the fact that Snaps also got the translator implant so now he’s a talking dog. Snaps pretty much steals every scene he’s in.

There were so many sweet moments as they got to know one another and began the Choosing competition, which is basically a sporting event. Think The Bachelor crossed with a deadlier American Gladiators. I loved watching Beryl make the best of this new world and really come into her own.

Even though Zylar accidentally kidnapped Beryl, he deeply cares about her agency and consent. He’s always putting her needs first and I adored his odd compliments. Beryl is a gemstone so he calls her his unexpected treasure. How sweet is that?! The evolution of their relationship was so lovely and they really brought out the best in one another. I also really appreciated how this dealt with their anatomical differences and how that impacted sex. It was wonderful to watch them figure sex out together and how they could experience pleasure, even if it was different from how they typically experienced it on their respective planets. A good lesson for us all. This was just a great, fun read and I’m so glad I picked it up!

CW: unintentional kidnapping, violence including loss of life in a competition, past death of parent, recreational drug use (side characters), references to infidelity (side character), revenge, murder

(Honorable mention for her fantasy romance Bitterburn.)



Erotic Romance:

Door of BruisesDoor of Bruises (Thornchapel #4) by Sierra Simone

What an utterly magnificent end to this series! It’s been a wild ride and I am sad to say goodbye to the Thornchapel crew. But it came to a fitting, emotional, and beautiful end. This series may not be for everyone (seriously, heed the content warnings) but it was definitely for me. My biggest takeaway from this book and from Thornchapel as a whole is the exploration of sacrifice and blessing through the lens of faith, paganism, and fairytales. The way Sierra then tied these concepts to kink blew my mind. She remains, as ever, my Erotic Theologian. This book was hot as hell and then some.

This book was bold and brave. I had no idea how Sierra would bring it all home but I trusted she would and her plot choices made for a very moving ending. It makes you work for the HEA but it is there. I cried a ton, although it didn’t wreck me quite as much as American King did. Fare thee well, Thornchapel, in all your broody, sexy, heart-wrenching glory. I’m so glad I got to know Auden, St. Sebastian, Poe, Rebecca, Delpine, and Becket. Until we meet again.

Character notes: Poe is a white American with narcolepsy. Auden, St. Sebastian, Becket, and Delpine are white Britains. Rebecca is Black British. Delphine is fat. They are all bisexual. Auden has a dog named Sir James Frazer. This is set in England

CW: main characters become sick from mysterious illness and a minor character in the village dies from it, possible incest between half-brothers, past infidelity by a main character, exposure therapy related to past sexual assault (character thinks back to sessions), past plague, past death of parents (including murder and addiction), microaggression, discussion of race/racism, narcolepsy, alcohol, Auden’s father was abusive, dead sheep, wren killed by crows on-page, Highlight brackets for spoilers: [suicidal ideation/intent of self-sacrifice, main character drinks rosehips in order to sacrifice herself, perceived death of main character but she goes through the Door and lives and she, Auden, and Saint are eventually reunited 18 years later when the Door opens again]

Disclosure: the author and I are friendly online.



Bottle RocketBottle Rocket (So Over The Holidays #3) by Erin McLellan

This is my favorite of the series and that’s saying something because this has been one delightful series to begin with. I loved everything about this second chance erotic romance. It's the Summer of Rosie for our buttoned up heroine and when she runs into her old love (while he's posing nude at the art class she's taking, no less), they come up with a sex list and he helps her cross them off. He's only in town for 6 days so of course they can't fall in love, those silly fools. He’s into being dominated and she learns that she enjoys dominating! Plus Leo is an erotic artist and HE DRAWS HER!!! That is my purest catnip and I cackled when Sasha mentioned he went full-on Titanic on Rosie. Plus pegging! Plus orgy!

It was so steamy and sweet and perfect. Rosie and Leo seemingly have such different needs and I loved their eventual compromise on how they could make their relationship work. It’s unconventional (a mix of long-distance and home base) but it was so true to who they are. This is set during the 4th of July but there’s not much patriotism, thankfully. I will for sure be making this an annual holiday re-read! Also, I have to say I love all the queer rep throughout the series. In this one, Leo is bi. Rosie's sister Sasha (from book 1) is bi. Their brother Benji (book 2) is gay, William is bi. And that's just the start.

CW: heroine is divorced, heroine’s husband cheated on her




30 Days30 Days by Christine d'Abo

Alyssa is 35. Her husband died two years prior and she has just turned a corner on her grief when she remembers the conversations they’d had with Rob encouraging her to have sex and find love love again once he was gone. Not only did they have those conversations, he wrote her 30 cards with different types of sex for her to have. When Harrison moves into her building temporarily for work, he seems like a good fit. He’s not interested in a serious relationship and neither is she. But of course, we all know how that goes!

This was such a lovely, nuanced examination of grief and mourning. Loss isn’t a linear process, even when you’re ready to move forward with some part of your life, even when you’ve welcomed a new person into your life. Alyssa and Harrison have great chemistry and a real connection. As much as Alyssa fights falling for him, she does. But she isn’t fully ready to move on either and I thought the story did such a good job examining this. It's not completely on her though because Harrison doesn't communicate his changing feelings either. There’s some truly excellent groveling and a scavenger hunt that made me smile and swoon. Plus, it’s super hot. I loved every minute of this story! 

CW: heroine’s husband died of cancer, grief, past divorce, hero's mother died when he was 15, reference to a side character’s kitchen fire,  Highlight brackets for spoilers: [death of a friend (heart attack), hero’s ex-wife diagnosed with skin cancer but she makes the diagnosis sound worse so he’ll come back]



Queen Takes KnightsQueen Takes Knights by Joely Sue Burkhart

I had to include this because it's the only novel that held my attention during election week and I will forever be grateful. I inhaled this book and found it to be utterly delightful in how bananas it is. Because it is absolutely bananas. Vampire queen MMF featuring a virgin on the run for her life ever since her mother was murdered by demons 5 years ago, who has no idea that she’s a vampire, much less a queen, until her Bloods (basically bodyguards) appear as she’s being attacked. Also, the demons target her especially when she has her period. This is a very blood-laden, period-centered story. Like…one of the heroes goes down on her when she has her period because that blood is extra powerful. These vampires live for blood and they like things bloody—this book cover did not lie. It’s incredibly hot. It’ll either work for you or not and it absolutely worked for me. Also, major props that the world-building is not heteronormative! There are queens who prefer women or nonbinary people (although the text says non-gendered) and there are Bloods of all genders and sexualities.

I do want to address one thing that is potentially problematic. Shara learns that she is an Aima queen and a descendant of the goddess Isis. Her mother was Egyptian but her father was not so she’s half Egyptian herself. But she appears to be and functions as a white character. I cannot speak to any of the Egyptian representation or the role of Isis. Nothing felt overtly wrong to me but I’m white and there’s plenty I could be missing.

Character notes: Shara is 22 and half vampire, half something else. Alrik is 88 but he’s a Blood so he looks like he’s in his 20s or 30s. No age given for Daire but he’s older than Alrik. Alrik and Daire appear to be bisexual but it’s not explicitly stated. This is set in Kansas City.

CW: depictions of blood, violence, heroine witnessed her mother’s 5 years prior and her dad’s murder some years before that, grief, family planning discussion, highlight bracket for spoiler: [heroine dies while in Isis’s presence and is reborn]