Random (but not really)

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Books of 2020: Romance

I read a lot of romance this year. 65% of the books I read were classified as romances of some flavor, which is twice the romances I normally read (on average).

Why? That’s easy: a romance gives you a guaranteed HEA (Happily Ever After) so I know when I picked up a romance I was not going to feel worse when I finished it than I did when I started. Which this year really, really needed as far as I was concerned.

The majority of these books have boinking–mostly open door and sometimes explicit boinking. For individual authors, check a specific book, because most of Alexis Hall’s books are pretty explicit, but Boyfriend Material is pretty much closed door. (ie you know what happened, but you don’t get the explicit details.)

Winter Companion
The Winter Companion (2020) Mimi Matthews

This is the fourth and final book in her Parish Orphans of Devon series. The third book I didn’t much care for, but this story was better (though not quite as good as the first book).

This may have been the hardest book for her to write, since the hero here was so badly damaged as a kid–a blow to the head and almost drowning messed up his verbal pathways, so he hides himself, acting as stable master for one of his best friends.

On a good day, the words Neville formed in his mind could be translated into short phrases with minimal difficulty. He’d learned over the years how to keep things from getting muddled. How to say what he intended with the least fuss, even if that meant he must occasionally sound like a child.

Mimi Matthews is one of the first authors to come to mind when someone asks for a “clean” romance (ie, one without sex).

I read some other books by her I liked better, but they were older and so didn’t make the list.

The Duke Who Didn't
The Duke Who Didn’t (2020) Courtney Milan (Wedgeford Trials)
Historical (boinking)

This is a British historical romance, set in a small community that had been resettled by immigrants, and quickly became a place where those whose ancestors were not anglo-saxon could live in relative harmony and peace.

Chloe Fong only wants the special sauce her father has been working on for years to succeed. The sauce he created after his original recipe was stolen and he was left with nothing to make his way to England.

Jeremy Wentworth has never gotten anything out of being a duke. In fact his mother took him back to China for several years, to escape the misery she felt living in Britain. But Jeremy’s aunt brought him back to do his duty to the family. His yearly visit to the Wedgeford Trails has been the only time he’s felt he’s allowed to be himself–in a community that doesn’t know who he really is.

I think the best part of this story is The Big Reveal. And really, that’s all I can say without giving it all away.

I love Courtney Milan’s books because she brings people you don’t normally see in British historicals to the page.

Two Rogues Make a Right
Two Rogues Make a Right (2020) Cat Sebastian (Seducing the Sedgwicks)
Historical, LGBT (boinking)
I adored It Takes Two to Tumble. It’s essentially The Sound of Music with the nun replaced by a vicar. The sequel I didn’t enjoy as much, although I did enjoy the diversity of the characters.

This book has the “bad guy” of the previous two books as one of the romantic leads, and I was very very skeptical about his redemption.

However, the other romantic lead was Martin’s childhood best friend, and so we see what led Martin to his actions in the previous books from both Martin and Will’s eyes. Which made a huge difference.

It also didn’t hurt that Martin was so ill at the start of the book he was delusional. Hard to be angry at someone that pitiful.

That you come to understand why Martin behaved as badly as he did is a testament to the storytelling, since I really did not want to read a story about Martin after everything he’d done in the previous books.

Martin preferred not to think of Will’s time in the navy. He had a list as long as his arm of things to feel guilty about, and the only reason he could get by from day to day was to resolutely refuse to think about any of them.

Yet I did, and lo I came to understand why Martin acted as he did, and why Will was willing to forgive him. Well, that and the fact Martin really was done poorly by his father.

He’s Come Undone: A Romance Anthology (2020) Emma Barry, Olivia Dade, Adriana Herrera, Ruby Lang, and Cat Sebastian
Contemporary, Historical, LGBT (boinking)

This is an anthology with a little bit of everything.

Appassionata by Emma Barry – MF

Unraveled by Olivia Dade – MF

Caught Looking by Adriana Herrera – MM

Yes, And… by Ruby Lang – MF

Tommy Cabot Was Here by Cat Sebastian – MM

All the stories were good and well-worth reading.

Get a Life Chloe Brown
Get a Life, Chloe Brown (2019) Talia Hibbert
Contemporary (boinking)

I’ll admit that I like Talia Hibbert’s Ravenswood series better than her Brown sisters series, but this story is just good on so many levels, starting with having a plus sized heroine of color who suffers from chronic pain.

On top of that, it’s a fun story, and the hero is a complete cinnamon roll (ie an absolute sweetheart) who puts up with Chloe’s crankiness.

“You like to research everything,” he guessed. “No; you like to know everything. You’re one of those ‘knowledge is power’ people.”

“Knowledge is power,” she shot back.

“I bet you were a massive teacher’s pet at school.” He was grinning. Hard.

“I bet you were an aimless slacker,” she said archly.

“I bet you always file your taxes on time.”

She was clearly scandalized. “Who doesn’t file their taxes on time?”

As with all her books, she make sure her books have different kind of representation, so even if one of her books isn’t my cup of tea, it’s still good and worth reading.

Conventionally Yours
Arctic Sun, Arctic Wild, Arctic Heat (2019) (Frozen Hearts); Conventionally Yours (2020) Annabeth Albert
Contemporary, LGBT (boinking)

I don’t adore everything Annabeth Albert has written, but I adore every book in her Frozen Hearts series.

The hike took them over a long wooden bridge away from the road until River felt the familiar thrill he got when hiking away from civilization— all the obligations and expectations that rattled around his head faded until it was only him and this spot on the planet, the rush of being privileged to get to see all this abundance of beauty.

Her most recent book, Conventionally Yours, is just lovely. It’s about two rivals who are part of a group going to compete in a table top convention, both believing they need to win to escape their current lives

Most of her books have characters who are damaged in some way (which is totally my catnip) but it’s not a competition to see who is worse off, but instead both characters help each other.

They’re very sweet and aren’t super angsty, which has been pretty important for me this year.

Glass Tidings
Glass Tidings (2016) Amy Jo Cousins
Contemporary, LGBT (boinking)

What I liked best about this story is how it kept going in ways I didn’t expect.

Eddie is a nomad who ends up stuck in a small town after witnessing a hit-and-run. Grayson runs his family’s shop and draws further and further into himself every year.

Eddie liked men whose bodies were lived in. Strong where they needed to be, but sometimes soft too, because who had time for gyms when there were lives to be lived?

Neither trusts people, although for very different reasons, and their reactions to that fear of trust manifests in opposite ways: Eddie won’t stay in one place, while Gray holes up in his home. Neither wants to let another person in, which is at the heart of this story–both trying to learn to trust someone else and expand their worlds.

Boyfriend Material
Glitterland, Waiting for the Flood (2018) (Spires); Boyfriend Material (2020) Alexis Hall
Contemporary, LGBT (boinking)

Alexis Hall is my favorite author for 2020. Even when a book didn’t work for me, I still got why it was good, and managed to appreciate the things I didn’t enjoy.

Boyfriend Material may be my favorite book this year, although Check, Please! gives it a run for it’s money.

He writes broken characters (again, my catnip) who are struggling to make themselves better. In Boyfriend Material you don’t quite realize until you’re well into the story just how broken Luc is.

“You’ve been through a lot today,” he said. “There’s no need to diminish it.”

“Yeah, but if I don’t diminish things I have to face them at their normal size, and that’s horrible.”

He also uses humor to balance some of the darker themes in this stories, from suicide attempts to deep depression, countering them with snark and banter and ridiculousness.

His books have been a lovely discovery this year. I also read some of his fantasy books, one of which made the fantasy list.

Galaxies and Oceans
Galaxies and Oceans (2018), Upside Down (2019), Throwing Hearts (2020), Tic-Tac-Mistletoe (2020) N.R. Walker
Contemporary, LGBT (boinking)

Here is my other favorite new author of 2020.

Mostly because all those books above are so happy it was precisely what I needed this year. Also, most of the conflict (when there was conflict) was external, so there was no Big Misunderstanding between the characters that could have been solved if they had bothered to use their words with each other.

Upside Down is probably my favorite of the lot above. It’s an ace story, and has the two characters falling in love on the bus.

So, as the bus pulled in, my heart was dressed in neon Lycra, a bottle in one hand and a microphone in the other, singing Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” while my brain was stoic, arms crossed, working on some algorithm or genius equation that would determine indisputably, unequivocally, that I was the dumbest motherfucker on the planet for even entertaining the idea that Hennessy would be one, single. And two, remotely interested in me.

It’s really delightful, and I might possibly be Jordan.

My phone beeped in my hand and I tripped over my own feet, almost falling to the ground but catching myself just in time. “Motherfucker.”

It was just the book I needed to read this year, but really, every book in that list above is excellent.

I will note that Galaxies & Oceans does have TWs for intimate partner violence. It isn’t on the page, but you are in the aftermath of it. But the rest of her stories tend to be fluffy and happy with most of the conflict coming from the outside, and several have secondary romances–Throwing Hearts had my favorite secondary romance.

The Remaking of Corbin Wale
The Remaking of Corbin Wale (2017), Raze (2019) (Riven), Better Than People (2020) (Garnet Run) Roan Parrish
Contemporary, LGBT (boinking)

Roan Parrish writes romances that are often full of angst and may leave you weeping.

Which, you know, I love damaged characters, but this IS 2020 and I don’t have very much mental resilience right now. So although her Riven series is very good, Better Than People is probably my favorite book by her this year, since it was a less angsty.

“I worked at a c-company before.” He shuddered. “It was awful. Cubicles and p-people and no one would leave me alone.”

“What’d they do?” Jack asked, preemptively furious on Simon’s behalf.

Simon turned to him, eyes wide with horror. “Talked to me! Had b-birthday cakes and— and holiday parties.”

Yeah, there were damaged people who struggled, but it wasn’t quite so punch-you-in-the-chest-with-feelings.

If you’re up for angst, then definitely check out her Riven or Small Change series.

Blank Spaces
Blank Spaces (2016) Cass Lennox
Contemporary, Mystery, LGBT (boinking)

This book breaks my rule of limiting books to the current and previous year, because it was such a good book I couldn’t stop thinking about.

One character is ace, although he doesn’t realize that at the start of the story. He just knows he’s done with dating.

Vaughn knew how to pick them. He set the spoon down. “I’m not flirting with you.”

“Really.” Jonah’s voice dripped with disbelief. “You don’t call putting food in my mouth flirting?”

“No, actually. I share food with my eating companions regularly.” Vaughn mentally replayed their conversation. “What part of the last twenty minutes was flirtatious?”

Jonah’s jaw dropped. “Are you kidding me? Just how oblivious are you?”

(Reader? Vaughn is that oblivious.)

When someone steals paintings from the gallery where he works Vaughn ends up having to deal with the insurance adjusters who are (rightfully) suspicious since this is the third robbery they’ve reported.

Jonah, who is the junior partner of the insurance investigative team, spent his childhood and youth in foster homes, learning quickly he could rely on no one but himself.

To say that Vaughn and Jonah are opposites is a major understatement. I truly could not figure out how they were going to make a relationship work since not only were they very different people, but they also had needs that were at odds.

I ended up reading this book twice this year and could probably read it a third time.

Dine with Me
Dine with Me (2019) Layla Reyne
Contemporary, LGBT (boinking)

I read both Layla Reyne’s FBI series and very much enjoyed them. But once the pandemic started I really didn’t have the headspace for thrillers. This story is of a chef taking a farewell tour of some of his favorite restaurants, after a cancer diagnosis.

The best thing about this story is the amazing descriptions of the meals they eat.

(W)hen he tasted the chocolate soufflé with Earl Grey crème anglaise, it was beyond semi-orgasmic. Hell, beyond orgasmic. It was a night full of hot-sweaty-blow-your-mind-sex, in a baking ramekin and gravy boat. He eyed the latter, debating whether to turn it up and drink the remaining crème anglaise right from the boat.

Miller followed his gaze, accurately reading his intent. “I will think less of you.”

“I’m not sure I care right now.” The sauce was calling his name, loudly.

The next best thing was Miller coming to terms with his illness.

But also, the food.

She also made it onto the mysteries list, with one series completed last year, although I prefer the prior series a little more.

The Books of 2020

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