Recently for dayjob, I went to another training from Kevin Ashworth, founder of the Northwest Anxiety Institute. I’ve seen Kevin speak before, and I am a bit obsessed with him. He’s funny and smart and one of those presenters where everything he says has your brain and heart screaming yes and oh god it’s not just me and can you talk for like five hours more because my blood pressure really likes this.
Anyway, Kevin often starts off his talks with explaining the difference between stress and anxiety. This is always a pretty simple explanation, but for some reason always feels revolutionary in my head, and on this day in particular it really struck me in regards to publishing, especially now that I’ve lived through my traditional debut.
Stress is when we’re presented with a problem that really sucks, but it’s a problem with a solution, something we can problem-solve. It’s short term, until that stressful thing is over. The example Kevin normally gives is getting a flat tire. It sucks and causes a lot of stress, but you can call AAA. You can call a friend for help. You can call a Lyft to get home. Eventually, you can get the tire fixed and move on with your day.
Most jobs, in general, are stressful. But there are metrics by which you know you’ve done a good job. You secured that deal. You got a good review from your bosses. You finished that report. You got a bonus for your efficiency.
(Kevin also gave the example of, if you are working three jobs and feel awful all the time and then go to therapy and say, help me feel less anxious, you are actually probably suffering from stress, and there is a solution, which is, maybe stop working three jobs, and wow did I feel called out!! [I understand that often that solution is not one people can actually accomplish, that they are working three jobs because they have to, but still, ouch.])
In publishing, there are a lot of things that cause stress, too. Like, writing a book. Writing a book is fucking stressful. Writing a book, or working on edits, on a deadline is fucking stressful. But we can do it (most of the time). We can ask our daily supports for time away from parenting and partner-ing to get the work done. We can drink lots of coffee and force ourselves to put the words on the screen. We can ask friends and beta readers and CPs to help solve problems in our drafts.
Anxiety is a problem that does not have a solution. They are problems that we do not have any control over whatsoever. Anxiety is spending every day worrying about whether you might get a flat tire, even though you have no control over whether there are nails in the road you’re going to drive over today. We literally do not have control over those nails, there is nothing we can do about it, but we are anxious about it anyway.
Well. Let me tell you! How many things in (traditional) publishing writers have absolutely no control over!
We have no control over agents. Over whether there are agents who even exist who will “connect” with your very specific work. Same goes for editors. We have no control over publishing not paying either of these entities enough, or hiring enough of them, or preventing them from suffering burnout. We have no control over advances, if we get advances at all, or royalties, or how those are actually distributed. (We often don’t even know how many books we’ve actually sold.) We have no control over marketing budgets. We have no control over awards, or lists, or TikTok virality. We have thrown our shit out there, and we have no control over what happens next.
(Sure, you can write the best book you can possibly write, but everyone knows publishing isn’t a meritocracy. We have all read books that blow our socks off that have received very little “buzz,” we have all read books that have sold millions of copies that make us go “eh?” Writing the best book you can is the one thing we have control over, but really, in publishing, that doesn’t always mean much.)
It’s not that there aren’t metrics, really; it’s that there are too many of them. Even when you have hit a lot of them, there are always more out there, needling our confidence. There is no performance review where your boss says, good job! You have done your job real good. You win publishing.
We can market ourselves, of course, as much as we can, through social media and events and our websites, but even that doesn’t usually move the needle much in overall sales. But it’s this sector that I think really drives the anxiety.
Maybe there are writers out there who are super confident in their work. They’ve written their heart out, know that it’s the best they can do. They’ve worked their way through the tiers of publishing and now it’s out there in the world. They go back to things they can control: writing the next book. Working in their garden. Making dinner for themselves. Binging their favorite TV shows. God bless these people.
But for most of us, we only return to a vacuum of constant reminders about things we can’t control, but that somehow, because of the engine of social media, we feel like we should. You published a book! Yay, have 24 hours of feeling kind of proud of yourself.
And then start worrying about sales numbers, about your reviews on Goodreads, about your reviews on Amazon. About whether your book will sell enough for multiple printings. Will you sell translation rights? Will you sell TV/movie rights? Will you make lists? Will people make fanart? If none of those things happen, does that mean your book sucks? Is there a monthly subscription for Ben & Jerry’s? Why did you want to do this anyway? What if people loved your first book and now you have to write a second book and what if the first book was just a fluke and everyone fucking hates your second book? What if your partner starts resenting you for all the time you ask off from life to go write? What if your beta readers are just being nice to you because they’re nice people? What if someone found a tweet you tweeted in 2014 when like you were super dumb and young and then you get cancelled? Why have you been on Twitter so long anyway? What if all of your posts are really annoying and everyone secretly hates you? What if you’re talking about your book too much or not enough? How much more money than you, exactly, do you think that Nazi romance author got? Like, thousands and thousands of dollars, right? Will you ever make enough to write full-time? Will writing full-time make you lose your mind, because writing is so weird and personal and it’s hard to do it all the time, and people will judge you for wanting to write full-time because like, that’s not a real job anyway, and people will say things that hurt your feelings even though you know you’re working really hard? Why do you care about any of these things? Why do you feel so weird all the time? Why are you always comparing yourself to others when you know that you’re doing the very best you can?
Because…the publishing machine TRAINS us to compare to others. There is literally no escaping it.
Even though we have no control over any of it.
Even though our brains were not equipped for any of this.
One of the things that Kevin also talks about, in his talks, is that traditional coping mechanisms for stress often do not translate to anxiety. Things like self-care: taking a nice hot bath, eating well, going for walks, all help ease stress. Those are nice things to do for ourselves when we have turned in those edits on deadline.
But they do not actually solve anxiety, as long as all those things that trigger anxiety still exist. One of the things that does help anxiety is competence: having exposure to the things we are anxious about and conquering them. Each time you deal with a flat tire competently, your anxiety about future flat tires, should, eventually, decrease. So I imagine, one day, when I have published 45 books, maybe I will be less anxious about it.
Until then, though, I will keep doing what my heart loves, to the utter frustration of my poor brain.
My reading life has felt very off this year, which I’ve learned really throws my mental health. But maybe the actual reality is that everything has felt off this year.
I break these reading roundups into half because doing one big year-long roundup at the end of the year stresses me out—my memory is not that impressive! Last year, I listed my top 25 reads for each half of the year. This year, looking through my reading history of the last six months, I was able to scrounge up 20—which is actually more than I thought I might find. Looking back on all these wonderful reads actually felt quite therapeutic—maybe my brain hasn’t been so off after all.
So here are those random 20 that kept my brain tethered through 2021 thus far. As always, in no particular order:
How to Fail at Flirting, Denise Williams Contemporary romance; Berkley (2020)
This was just a really pure delight. I loved the absolute dorkiness of both Naya & Jake; just thinking about them still makes me smile. It was so easy to fall in love with them from the start. And even though this book deals with heavier themes too, Williams handles it so well (and I’ve seen her direct readers to her content warnings so many times), that I still feel light when I think about this book. Warm, charming, and powerful. Can’t wait for Williams’s follow-up!
One Hot December, Tiffany Reisz Contemporary romance; Harlequin (2016)
One Hot December is the last in a holiday trio (the first books in the series are set around Halloween and then Thanksgiving) that I gobbled up this winter, even if I was a bit behind with this Christmas one that I didn’t actually read until January, oops. While they were all super enjoyable, this was my favorite of the bunch, probably because the heroine was a prickly lady welder, lol. There are two things though that I really loved about this whole series: one, it takes place on Mt. Hood, Oregon (where apparently Reisz lives!!), one of my very favorite places in the world. (Do I think of Reisz and this series every time I go there now? Yes.) Two, you can just tell how much fun Reisz had while writing all of them, which honestly felt…a little revolutionary? Feeling how much fun she must’ve had writing them was so fun to engage with as a reader, and was inspiring as a writer. Like, oh yeah. Sometimes, this can just be fun.
3. The Guest List, Lucy Foley Mystery; William Morrow (2020)
You can thank the book club I started participating in this year for this one, a book totally out of my wheelhouse but that I totally enjoyed nonetheless (it’s good to get out of your wheelhouse sometimes!). A really tight writing style that I loved, and a great whodunit murder mystery wherein you didn’t only not know who the killer was, but also who the hell was actually murdered. As a bonus, it was really fun yelling about all the horrible people in this book with my book club friends over Zoom. (So many horrible people!!)
This was book #3 in the Bold Brew series, a multi-author 10 book series based around a kinky gay coffeeshop in a college town in Pennsylvania. I also read Books 1, 2, 4, and 5, and will probably read the other 5 left in the series at some point when I need something fun and distracting because, well, I am trash. Books 1 and 2 (Cup of Joe by Annabeth Albert and Puppuccino by Allison Temple) were also really enjoyable, but it wasn’t a surprise that Perfect Matcha was my favorite, since in my mind, Erin McLellan can do no wrong. Cam and Theo and their role-playing and pining and toy exploration were adorable.
I will say that this series advertises Bold Brew as an “inclusive” coffeeshop, even though every book in here was m/m—so like, just call it a gay coffeeshop/series. I would have loved this series even more if it actually was inclusive—if there were some f/f stories thrown into the mix, or more trans stories, too. Having a solid m/m series is easier for marketing, but also, like…screw Amazon keywords and search algorithms sometimes, ya know? We can be better.
5. The Intimacy Experiment, Rosie Danan Contemporary romance; Berkley (2021)
This was the gentlest, softest book about the most badass people. Most romance readers know the pitch by now—a porn star and a hot rabbi—but this really is an emotional tour de force about faith, vulnerability, and love. I will note for transparency that I know and love Rosie very much, but this one felt really special to me and wrapped itself all the way around my heart.
This debut romance mostly set in the Galapagos was simply so much fun. The pitch for this one is also well documented—The Unhoneymooners meets The Hating Game—but this enemies to lovers really worked for me because Henley and Graeme’s relationship never actually felt toxic to me (my problem sometimes with enemies to lovers)—readers know pretty much from the jump that Graeme is, in fact, a golden retriever that you want to cuddle and squeeze to death, and that the only actual toxicity between them is their workplace. And getting to watch Henley deal with that is super, super satisfying. Smart and charming and heartfelt.
7. There Will Be Phlogiston, Alexis Hall Queer fantasy romance; 2018 (self-published)
This completed my foray into Hall’s Prosperityverse, and I honestly wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it, since it was said to be the story of Lady Rosamond Wolfram, who was…not painted in the best of lights in previous installments of this universe. But then again, like with a lot of Hall’s work, this whole series was ABOUT exploring extremely flawed people—and the occasional pure beams of light who love them anyway, like Byron Kae in previous installments, and like Anstruther Jones in this one. So really it all made total sense in the end. What I will always remember most about this book was that even if Rosamond, Anstruther Jones, and Lord Mercury all lived in a dark, fucked up world…the ending for all of them was so fucking satisfying I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. This also might have been the first menage romance I’ve ever read? I…was a fan. lol.
Damaged Goods is an extra story in Hibbert’s Ravenswood series, slotting I believe between Books 1 and 2, and it is technically a novella, but I still have a hard time wrapping my head around that because this book made me feel more things than like, a majority of the full-length novels I’ve read. It’s a second chance romance between very pregnant Laura and her childhood love Samir Bianchi, and I love Samir Bianchi so much that I can only call him by his full name, and goddamn, Hibbert is so good! She’s so good at writing about heavy topics (both Laura and Samir have lived through significant trauma) but with characters that bring each other so much lightness and goodness, full of so much natural chemistry and humor, that it just feels wonderful to read. Also this novella is FREE? LIKE YOU CAN DOWNLOAD IT RIGHT NOW FOR FREE?? We do not deserve her.
9. Big Boy, Ruthie Knox Contemporary romance; 2017 (self-published)
Since I’m on the topic of novellas, I’ll jump into this one, which…phew. PHEW. I’m not sure if novella is even the most accurate term—short fiction, maybe?—because this one is a mere 77 pages, and how, HOW Ruthie Knox was able to knock me flat in 77 pages, I will never comprehend. Again, I feel like I remember both of these characters so much more vividly than half of the full-length novels I’ve read. This was another download I clicked because of Twitter, and like always, the readers I trust on Twitter GET ME, because this was the kind of super emotional gut punch I live for. Big Boy is, in fact, not a reference to the hero of this story, but to a train—a train that lives in a museum, where two almost-strangers occasionally meet to role play and make love. And oof, this book IS sexy, but more than that, it is just…an emotional gut punch. I know I already said that, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it.
10. A Lady’s Formula for Love, Elizabeth Everett Historical romance (Victorian England); 2021 (Berkley)
Whenever I read well-done historical romance, I basically putter around the apartment muttering, “Okay, but how can they be so smart?” Like, how can historical romance writers understand history, and plot, and romance, and writing, all so freaking well? And then sometimes they go and add science to the mix, too, like this fantastic debut, and I really start to lose it. Anyway—this romance between a lady scientist and her bodyguard ticked so many of my boxes—a damn-what-society-thinks super-smartypants heroine, a starchy, buttoned up hero with wounds who falls to pieces over said smartypants heroine, a great cast of supporting characters, and a twists-and-turns mystery. I can’t wait for more.
(I will note here that I have read critiques of Everett’s inclusion of a trans character in here and the choices she makes in regards to him. I respect those critiques, and people’s choice to maybe not read this book because of that [and to disagree with what I’m about to say]. My own viewpoint is that writing trans characters into historical fiction is extremely tricky—there are simply so many ways to describe being trans now that did not exist in the Victorian Era—for which I personally give authors grace. And that overall, the choice to include a trans character at all in historical fiction—and one that is so openly loved, accepted, and supported by the main characters, as is the case here—is one that is still powerful and important to me, and I was really grateful to see it in a book published by Berkley.)
This book will undoubtedly be in the running for my Top 5 favorite books of all of 2021. (Being that we’re still only at the halfway mark, I’m leaving room for others to possibly really wow me.) I’d call it women’s fiction with a strong romantic plot line, since there is fantastic romance in here, but the heart of the story is really Anna’s grief. (This is one of those ones where I feel like the cover and marketing misrepresent what this book actually is…which is not Doller’s fault.) Struggling to get over her fiancé’s death by suicide, Anna impulsively sets off for the Caribbean in his sailboat one day, the one they had planned to sail around the world in together. After an initial scary foray off the coast of Florida, she realizes she can’t go it completely alone, and hires Keane Sullivan to help her reach Trinidad, where she and her fiancé were meant to be married. Doller’s writing is just so tight, and this was such a sparkling, fascinating tour through the world of sailing and the Caribbean that left me in awe, and aching to explore the world and respect my life. Keane is dealing with demons of his own, and the way Keane and Anne respect and honor each other’s grief is just…healing and beautiful. This one stayed with me for days.
12. The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, KJ Charles Queer historical romance; 2021 (self-published)
So here us KJ Charles fans were, waiting for the last installment of the Will Darling Adventures, and she was like hey, actually, have this book instead! And we were like, okay! (I mean it’s possible she had always planned to release this one before Subtle Blood and I just wasn’t paying attention; it’s hard to keep track of these prolific geniuses.) This standalone romp of two swindling siblings trying to escape their past and make their way in the world, and the grumpy baronet who gets in their way, was an absolute delight once I got immersed and like, understood what the hell was going on. (One signature of Charles’s work, if you’ve never read it, is that she really just throws you right into it, and it almost always takes me a good few chapters to feel like I actually know what the hell is happening. But then I love it!) Charles is so good at plot, and that “but how the hell is this actually going to work out” feeling, and then swooping in with the MOST satisfying endings. A wizard.
13. The Ex Talk; Rachel Lynn Solomon Contemporary romance; 2021 (Berkley)
In addition to being one of the kindest, most generous humans on the planet, Rachel Lynn Solomon is now pretty firmly entrenched as one of my favorite writers, too, and I loved The Ex Talk, her adult romance debut, just as much as I knew I would. Anyone who loves NPR and podcasts will feel SO SEEN by this book, and she is just so, so good at that seething rivals-to-lovers explosive chemistry. Gah. Her characters/writing also just have so many funny, relatable, lovable details crafted into them that make them last in your mind—I read this months ago and just the other day on the drive home, totally randomly, thought about Dominic’s master’s jar and felt so happy. And now I’m thinking about it again and feeling so happy again!!
14. Only When It’s Us, Chloe Liese Contemporary new adult romance; 2020 (self-published)
Liese is an author I kept hearing about last year and only finally got off my duff to start reading this year, and now I cannot wait to keep shoveling in every other book she ever writes. This is a romance set in college, so I’d consider it that new adult category that publishing is determined to make not exist and that readers continually beg for. Willa is a stubborn, hotheaded soccer star, so of course I loved her immediately. Ryder also used to be a soccer star, but has abandoned the game—and speaking—after losing his hearing. There is a lot going on in this book (big warning that Willa’s mother is dying of cancer), but the chemistry between Willa and Ryder is so fantastic (and fun, and frustrating, and warm), and Liese’s writing that level of emotional that I love, and so much about this felt fresh and different from romances I’ve read before. Like a big hug, even if I have personal FEELINGS about the end of Willa’s soccer storyline, which has 100% to do with my own soccer feelings and not Liese’s writing, lol. (Go Thorns!)
15. Hot Copy, Ruby Barrett Contemporary romance; 2021 (Carina)
This is a super steamy office romance between a buttoned-up boss and her gooey soft cinnamon roll intern, but at the heart of the office dynamics and the steam is actually a mutual connection over dealing with grief. This book was also super fun for me because it was set in Boston, and I will always be sentimental over anything to do with Boston (where I used to live and where I started my own love story). It’ll make you turned on AND make you cry, my favorite combo!!
16. Waiting for a Scot Like You, Eva Leigh Historical romance (Regency England); 2021 (Avon)
Give me “grumpy Scot” + “road trip for a merry widow to visit an orgy” and I am already a very happy person! This final installment in Leigh’s 80s inspired Union of the Rakes trilogy, like the whole trilogy itself, was just a really good time. I am here for grumpy/sunshine, along with “adventurous woman finally chasing adventure after being held back by men” every damn day. Every time I hear “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” on the radio now, I think of these books first.
Another book I probably wouldn’t have picked up without my book club (thanks book club!), there was so much to enjoy about this book—in particular, the fact that it is about exactly what the title says, lol. An exploration and tribute to the South Asian community of Southall in London that’s both critical and loving, I loved rooting for Nikki, but loved rooting for the Sikh widows and their erotic stories (which listen, some of them were really good) and dreams even more.
18. As If on Cue, Marisa Kanter Contemporary YA; 2021 (Simon & Schuster)
I loved this SO much. This is the only YA on this list, which proves how behind at my day job I’ve been…but reading this made me realize how much I do miss reading YA. This is a great rivals-to-romance story (pitting the band geek against the drama nerd when their school’s arts budget is cut), but I particularly loved the well-drawn depiction of Natalie’s family (and Reid’s, too, although Natalie’s is at the heart of the book). The writing is so clear and clever and current—this is a YA book for teens (particularly, driven, nerdy teens). I have seen some criticism of Natalie’s actions in this book: she is very intense and makes some very no-good horrible decisions in here. But for me (in addition to adding to the drama of the story, from a narrative perspective—my jaw literally dropped when she did The Thing), Natalie rings even truer to me as a dynamic teen character because of her flaws. Teenagers are very intense and make very no-good horrible decisions sometimes. And all of her fears that prompted her bad decisions rang true to me. Also: let’s not even talk about Reid and his curls! Anyway, this one comes out in September, and I can’t wait to buy it for my high school library.
This was just a treat and a half. (I’ve also mentioned this elsewhere, but I am OBSESSED with the lettering on this cover.) Nadim was a DREAMBOAT of a hero—DREAM. BOAT. And (similar to As If On Cue actually) I loved all the detail/complexity paid to Reena’s family and their dynamics. The plot was also a fun twist on the fake engagement/dating trope, as it was like…a real/fake/real/fake engagement (probably not a technical description; read the book to understand what I mean). Heron also gives such wonderful, loving descriptions of food in her books. Bread is the real star of this one (my favorite scene of the book is hands down when Nadim keeps like a hundred sourdough babies whilst looking after Reena’s sourdough starter), but there is so much MORE than bread, too, that I was salivating for most of this read.
20. An Unexpected Kind of Love, Hayden Stone Queer contemporary romance; 2021 (Entangled)
Hayden is a friend of mine, so I’ve had the pleasure of reading this in a few stages of its journey to publication, and I’m so excited to see it go live. Out in August, this is a queer take on Notting Hill, featuring a grumpy British bookseller and a charming American actor, and do you even need to know more than that? Stone’s writing is at turns wry and poetic, and I just really love these two and their sweet, tender love story. I want to hang out in Soho at Barnes Books so bad.
I’ll be back in December or January with my favorite reads of the second half of the year—when I’ll also be just weeks away from releasing my own book. (!!) I definitely won’t be freaking out at all.
As always, these lists are not genre or pub date dependent; they are a summary of my reading habits: 90% romance, 8% middle grade and YA, 2% other weird stuff sometimes.
Presented in no particular order:
Boyfriend Material, Alexis Hall Queer contemporary romance; 2020 (Sourcebooks)
This list will be rather Alexis Hall heavy, so I’ll try to temper my flailing. If possible. This was, without a doubt, the funniest book I read this year, and the book that brought me the most unadulterated joy. Whipsmart, queer af, tender. Any time I need to smile, I think about “No, this is just another homosexual I am standing next to,” and I laugh forever. Honestly, I cannot wait to re-read it.
Take a Hint, Dani Brown, Talia Hibbert Queer contemporary romance; 2020 (Avon)
I have loved everything I’ve ever read of Talia Hibbert’s, but this is probably my favorite thus far (with Work for It being a close second). Zaf was, hands down, the swooniest cis male romance hero I read this year, and Dani is…iconic. No one writes feelings quite like Talia. She’s just so good.
It is hard to believe that I read both this and Boyfriend Material within a month of each other and didn’t give up writing completely thereafter. (Contemplated it, though.)
Beach Read, Emily Henry Contemporary romance; 2020 (Berkley)
Christ. I’m on #3 in this list and I’m already out of words about how good the books that came out this summer were. “So smart and good I could barely fucking stand it” applies to all three of the above, okay? There were some mixed feelings about this one in the romance community, mainly because it’s probably more a mixture of romance and women’s fiction than straight up romance, but I was all in and so beautifully destroyed by this book.
The Devil of Downtown, Joanna Shupe Historical romance (Gilded Age NYC); 2020 (Avon)
Overall, my consumption of historicals this year was on the lighter side, but obviously I had to gobble up the final book in Shupe’s excellent Uptown Girls series. I mean, it’s a social justice warrior (which I use as a form of highest respect; can we reclaim this please) bringing a gangster to his knees with love. Obviously I loved it!!
You Had Me at Hola, Alexis Daria Contemporary romance; 2020 (Avon)
This was one of the most interesting romance books I’ve ever read, in terms of narrative choices—this romance between two movie stars is alternately told between their real lives and their characters on the screen, and how Daria expertly blends the two is just so cool! And fun, and sweet, and all the other hallmarks of a well-done romance. I was thinking about this one for quite a while after finishing it.
My favorite YA of the year. This takes place over the course of one day, on these sworn rivals’ final day of high school in Seattle, and it is so achingly romantic? Oh my pickles. Another one I can’t wait to re-read, and fall in love with these overachieving dummies all over again. Truly fantastic.
The Soldier’s Scoundrel, Cat Sebastian Queer historical romance (Regency England); 2016 (Avon)
There are a few authors’ backlists I’m dangerously close to completing, and Cat Sebastian is one of them. Somehow, after reading all of her other Avon historicals (including the wonderfully gentle Two Rogues Make a Right from this year), I had never read this one, her very first. And…it is unfair? That this was her first book and it is so, so good? Sebastian is able to weave history and sexy sexy tension and page-turning plot SO well. I only have one book of hers left to read, Hither Page, which I will probably break down and read in 2021, and then I’ll just need to…wait for her to write…new things? 😦
To Have and to Hoax, Martha Waters Historical romance (Regency England); 2020 (Atria)
Me, a few paragraphs ago: “I really didn’t read that many historicals this year!”
Me, now: *continues to include historical after historical* lol oops
Anyway, this was for sure the most FUN historical I read this year. I lurrrrve an estranged married couple trying to make their way back to each other, even when the way they choose to do so is…continually lie and prank each other, to the point of ridiculousness? Haha but such entertaining ridiculousness that only proves how much they ARE meant to be forever. *weepy heart eyes*
The Love Study, Kris Ripper Queer contemporary romance; Carina Adores (2020)
This was one of the first contemporary romances with a non-binary character who uses they/them that I’ve read other than my own, which was so refreshing (and made me want to sit down with Ripper and talk out our thought processes on writing non-binary love interests, because I need someone to talk to about these things). Declan, the main character, is exactly the kind of hilarious, messy queer that I legit can’t get enough of (see: Alexis Hall), and the queer friend group is the kind of queer friend group I can’t get enough of. In addition, I thought the YouTube storyline was super current and fun. And calling something “super current” 100% makes me “super old,” but oh wells!
Looking forward to enjoying more next year from the Carina Adores line, which exclusively features tropey, fun queer romance.
This fall, I did attempt to hunker back down into my actual job, which involves being current on both middle grade and YA lit. Susin Nielsen is a veritable genius, in my opinion; every single thing she writes gets both funnier and more poignant, and as a former writer for Degrassi, she’s great at really GOING THERE. I loved everything about this book about a boy struggling with being houseless in Vancouver, BC.
Ack, this cover, this book! So smart, so fun, so sexy. I love how Olivia Dade always treats her characters with so much respect, and I love how this book isn’t stealing from fan fiction, but paying honest, loving respect to it. It is such an important difference, in my book. The stakes and the backstories here were so touching and well done. Oh, Marcus, you earnest, wonderful cinnamon roll, I would eat you with a spoon.
The Voting Booth, Brandy Colbert YA contemporary; 2020 (Disney)
I actually read this one during election week here in the US, and wow, what a caring decision I made for myself! Another all-in-one-day YA story, which is apparently really my jam, this is both a sweet love story and a moving tribute to the power of the vote. I loved it.
So Over the Holidays novellas, Erin McLellan Queer erotic contemporary romance; 2019/2020 (self-published)
This whole series was SO FUN OMG?? I’m a little obsessed with the whole thing, but my favorite was probably Candy Hearts, followed closely by Bottle Rocket, but the other two are enjoyable as well. Just YOWZA levels of hotness (and such a fun variety of queer pairings!), but also really pure storylines? I love the supportive family unit of siblings that comprise most of the MCs of this series—Benji is one of my favorite characters I’ve read all year—and their erotic art/sex toy/lingerie making friends. (insert crying laughing emoji, but sincerely, I love them)
Common Goal, Rachel Reid Queer contemporary romance; 2020 (Carina)
While we’re on the topic of pure characters & their hot exploits, let’s move on to Common Goal! Reid has two more hockey romances coming out next year (I think!), and thank Jesus for that, sincerely, because I could read about these queer hockey bros forever and ever and ever. I don’t know exactly how Reid does it, but every single one of her books feels like slipping inside the comfiest blanket, where all the men are kind and good and deserve all the orgasms they receive. I’m particularly trash for an experienced-one-teaching-the-inexperienced-one trope, so I was all over this manly upright citizen getting to explore his bisexuality for the first time like an eager puppy. Probably now my second favorite in the series after Heated Rivalry (which I re-read, also during election week, another kindness to myself!!), but they are all honestly so good.
15 & 16. Slippery Creatures & The Sugared Game, KJ Charles Queer historical romance (1920s England); 2020 (self-published)
Hot damn these books! Both of these characters are just so fascinating?? And, well, slippery? And the ACTION, and the hate/love tension, geez Louise, I just. Don’t know how Charles does it. And as always! So fun to read historicals that aren’t Regency (not that I don’t still love Regency). I am sort of dying for the last in the trilogy?!
Granted, John David Anderson Middle grade contemporary fantasy; 2018 (Walden Pond)
Another middle grade from another middle grade master; like Susin Nielsen, I love everything John David Anderson. This is a fable about a fairy who finally gets to go out into the world to grant her very first wish, the most esteemed job a fairy can ever aspire to, and things go a bit haywire. And, well. I cried. A lot.
The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, Olivia Waite Queer historical romance (Regency England); 2020 (Avon)
Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics got a lot of attention last year, and while I did enjoy that one, whoa, I loved this one even more! Just something about plucky beekeepers and cranky widowed printers that really gets me going, I guess. In seriousness, it’s clear that Waite’s smarts and her research are immaculate, and it all really worked for me here. A lot of the bad guys in this one were also so bad and made me so mad and seeing Agatha and Penelope best them was *chef’s kiss*
I Wish You All the Best, Mason Deaver YA contemporary; 2019 (Push)
Yeah, I was behind on this one, but I’ve accepted that I’m going to perpetually be behind on YA for the rest of my life, so. This book about a non-binary teen getting kicked out of their house and finding a home with their estranged sister and an effervescent boy named Nathan was the loveliest, and I wanted to give the whole thing a really, really tight hug.
City of Ghosts, Victoria Schwab Middle grade mystery/horror; 2018 (Scholastic)
This was one of those fun ones for me as a school librarian, because almost as soon as I started it, I knew it would be one I could recommend to all kinds of kiddos, over and over again. It’s also one of those books that make me laugh at myself because I found it legitimately scary at times, and I knew my students would be staring at me and rolling their eyes when I told them so. I also loved, loved Jacob and hated, hated that he was a very dead ghost, and this is why I can’t read haunty things, lolz.
The Remaking of Corbin Wale, Roan Parrish Queer contemporary witchy romance; 2018 (self-published)
I don’t know how to characterize this, honestly—is it paranormal romance? Kind of? Maybe? I dunno, but it’s definitely witchy and weird, and there is a lot of Jewish baking and pining, and wow, like so many things Roan Parrish does, it was just so…pretty. I love her himbos who fall in love with weirdos. Corbin Wale is a character I’ll be thinking about for a long, long time.
Prosperityverse stories, Alexis Hall Queer fantasy; 2018 (self-published)
I am technically not done with this series, although I hope to finish it all early in the new year. It is hard to know how to summarize Prosperity; it is so different from a lot of Hall’s other work, but I think that’s what makes me so dumbstruck about it? To possess the kind of brain that can create so many different things? I can’t really talk about it without getting weird, SO, let me just say that I’ve had to take in every part of this series in slow bits and pieces because each bit and piece makes me think so much, and is such an interesting part of the puzzle of this universe, and, man. In summary, I would die for Byron Kae.
One thing I might like to do next year in these lists is include a quote with each of my favorite books. I am too lazy to go back and do that for everything else on this list now, but since I just recently read this bit, here is a quote from this universe that made me weep.
Written in the Stars, Alexandria Bellefleur Queer contemporary romance; 2020 (Avon)
Something I’m super into recently in contemporary romance is DATES, like actual awkward/wonderful dates, and the dates in here are STELLAR. The Japanese burger/thrift store date?? *pounds table* A PITCH PERFECT SEATTLE DATE! Watching these two women fall in love was so freaking fun and swoony and wonderful. Masterfully constructed. I absolutely loved it.
Brazen and the Beast, Sarah MacLean Historical romance (Regency England); 2019 (Avon)
The second in MacLean’s Bareknuckle Bastards series, I loved this one just as much as the first. The d r a m a in these books is unparalleled. In addition to making such memorable characters (The Year of Hattie, YES), these are the rare books where I think I genuinely like the blowing-shit-up bits just as much as the sexy bits. Remarkable!
Arden St. Ives series, Alexis Hall Queer contemporary romance; 2017/2018 (Forever)
So in romance, there are tropes, right? And often a thing people say is, “I’ll read any trope except the billionaire trope, because fuck billionaires,” and I am like RIGHT? 100% AGREE. And, *nervous laughter* then I read these books? And then…I read the entire series again, a month later? Because I loved them so much that I missed them?
This list really isn’t in any particular order, but I did save these for last in case I’d think of some better way to describe how I feel about them by the time I got here, and obviously, I didn’t. But the a n g s t and the hilarity and the submission and the *sobs* EVERYTHING. This is a series about love and sex and consent and finding yourself and re-finding yourself and Arden St. Ives is my favorite person in the world who isn’t real. There are so many interesting things Hall does with these books; the last book is like…an entire book of the dark night of the soul moment, which is torturous and fascinating, but also it’s NOT, because the characters need an entire book of the dark night of the soul to heal themselves, so actually it’s beautiful? Or Arden needs a whole book to heal himself; Caspian just gets more lost, but *SOBS LOUDER* ANYWAY THESE ARE MY FAVORITE BOOKS OKAY THANKS FOR READING!!
Can’t wait for all the stories I’ll get to consume in 2021. We are so lucky to have so many stories.
These are in no particular order (seriously) and are not exclusive to books published in 2020, but simply what I’ve personally read in 2020. So, like everything else about me, supes random! And my commentary below each one aren’t really reviews, per se, more like…just feelings about how that book made me feel. So, now that you’re PUMPED for this, let’s gooooo!
Love from A to Z, S.K. Ali YA Contemporary; 2019 (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster)
I read the award winning Saints and Misfits a couple years back and enjoyed it, but it was one of those books that I knew objectively was beautifully written but I personally had a harder time getting into than I wanted. Likely because it deals with themes of sexual assault (among other things), which is often hard for me. Did I get wrapped up into Love from A to Z so much faster because there’s a much stronger romantic element with a totally swoon worthy hero? Probably! Listen, I know who I am, okay?!
Along with the swoon worthy romance (they connect with the same piece of art, influencing their life philosophies, years before they meet each other *sob*), this one also deals with so much: MS, loss of family members/grief, drone strikes, Islamophobia. And Ali’s talent with words is just incredible. Ali’s female MCs in both of her books so far are so fiercely angry and I respect that so much. This book also takes place in Doha, Qatar, a setting I don’t think I’ve ever read in fiction before.
He’s Come Undone: A Romance Anthology, Emma Barry, Olivia Dade, Adriana Herrera, Ruby Lang, & Cat Sebastian Adult (mostly contemporary, one historical) romance; 2020 (self published)
When I saw this anthology announced on Twitter, I SCREAMED?! And then the whole thing was EVEN BETTER THAN I DREAMED?!
This is a group of novellas by a group of top-notch romance authors all centered around the beloved trope of a buttoned-up man getting totally effed up by love. Of the five authors, the only ones I hadn’t actually read before were Emma Barry and Olivia Dade, and I so loved getting my first tastes of their work here. From a writing perspective, I so, so admire these writers’ ability to pack so much character development and story arcs into these novellas; like, how?! I consumed this anthology slowly like a fine wine, and I loved how different each story was, as well. The characters ranged from piano virtuosos to murder diorama artists to professional baseball players to middle aged women having to move back home to take care of ill parents to sad teachers in 1970s New England private schools and phew! I wanted to hug each and every one of them!!!
The Prince of Broadway, Joanna Shupe Adult Historical Romance [Gilded Age, NYC]; 2019 (Avon)
This is the second in Shupe’s Uptown Girls series, and I really enjoyed the first installment, The Rogue of Fifth Avenue, last year, but THIS ONE! Holy shiiiit. First off, this has one of the hottest sex scenes I’ve read (yeah, the mutual masturbation in the brothel one), and it happens relatively early on, too, so this book was already a W I N N E R for me lolol but seriously, this is one of the most fiercely feminist historical romances I’ve ever read. Even with a real alpha hero, Florence—an uptown girl who is determined to open her own illegal lady run casino for ladies only—meets him beat for beat. Just two alphas really alpha-ing it up in here. This also has the best ending I have ever read in a historical, or really any romance ever. Just thinking about it makes me so very very happy.
What I Like About You, Marisa Kanter YA Contemporary Romance; 2020 (Simon & Schuster)
This book is the epitome of adorable, and also really niche nerdy, as the MC is a book blogger/influencer whose ultimate goal is attending Book Con. As a book nerd I enjoyed this aspect, although I did think some teens who aren’t as attuned to the world of publishing might be like “WTF is going on” for some of it, lol. BUT that’s okay because the relationships and character development are the real universal story here. I am such a sucker for this You’ve Got Mail-esque trope, where one of the protagonists keeps her online identity secret as she gets to know her online best friend IRL, unbeknownst to the best friend. It’s just…such a good trope, for so many reasons!
I also enjoyed this for the fact that the characters rang as true to me in terms of being teens. So many YA books these days have their characters going through such dark, adult-level emotions, and believe me, I am not saying that those emotions and experiences aren’t legit, because they are. Seriously, I love your dark YA. But also, like…some teens are just nerds. And while both characters in this book do in fact have older-than-their-years worries (the MC is literally running a full time business at the same time that she’s trying to survive as a high school student), I enjoy that they also like, stressing about AP tests. And a lot of the scenes—the bowling alley traditions, the hangouts in friends’ basements—really felt like genuine high school to me.
A Night to Surrender, Tessa Dare Adult Historical Romance [Regency England]; 2011 (Avon)
In my self-directed Introduction to Romance education, there were three authors who were truly instructive to me: Alyssa Cole, Cat Sebastian, and Tessa Dare. I want to write more extensively about each of those authors at some point, but when I was really, frankly, feeling like shit a few weeks ago, I realized how long it had been since I’d read a Tessa Dare. I flew through her most recent Girl Meets Duke series first, and then went back and devoured her Castles Ever After series, but that was all last year. So a few weeks ago, I prescribed myself with a Dare for my mental health, and oh man, it was the right choice. This is the first book in her Spindle Cove series and I forgot just…how happy her books make me? That sounds so simple but it’s so true and important. Dare is funny, and romantic, but all of her premises are always so genius and FUN and PERFECT. Like Spindle Cove, a lovely seaside village in the British countryside that is ruled by women who either don’t fit in with regular society or need to recover from society’s traumas. I want to go to a seaside British village run by ladies!! Tessa Dare also frequently writes about disability. One of my favorite heroes ever of hers is the blind duke from Romancing the Duke; I similarly enjoyed the injured military man who gets wrecked by Spindle Cove here.
The Chocolate Thief, Laura Florand Adult Contemporary Romance; 2011 (Kensington)
This is one of those books that I likely never would have picked up on my own (the cover, eh), except that it was recommended by Charlotte, one of my Twitter mutuals that I trust about everything, during the #RomBkLove Twitter event in May. And I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this story about an heiress to a Hershey-esque American chocolate empire who goes to Paris to woo the finest chocolatier in the land into a business deal. When the chocolatier says nah (obviously), she takes to spying on him and his kitchen, and I sort of love how obsessed this woman is? Like…she is seriously out of her mind about chocolate, y’all. Like, she should probably calm down, honestly, but she doesn’t, and I love that the hero, when he finds out how obsessed she is, is just…turned on by it?? lol romance is the best. Anyhoo, in addition to the delight of reading a book that’s literally entirely about chocolate, there is a particularly hot scene where they somehow bang while walking up stairs, which was rather remarkable. My only complaint, actually, is that I wanted much more banging after this scene and it didn’t happen, which was probably an editorial decision, but it’s FINE I guess.
The Roommate, Rosie Danan Adult Contemporary Romance; to be published September 2020 (Berkley)
Since I was just talking about banging, feels natural to talk about The Roommate next! Which is the only book on this list that isn’t out yet, so you should pre-order it! [ETA: It’s out now and people love it and it’s been optioned for film and omg I’m so happy??] Disclaimer: I know her!! So I am biased. But the setup of this one is just, ugh, perfect. An uptight socialite from Connecticut moves to LA to be roomies with her lifelong crush, or at least that’s what she thinks. But SURPRISE when she gets there the crush says oops, sorry forgot to tell you, I’m going on tour with my band now, but don’t worry!! I got some other dude to lease my room. And that other dude is totally a porn star! Our heroine is shocked, and…intrigued. This book is so smart and sex-positive and good and hot, and I loved learning more about the porn/sex worker industry. I love Josh and Clara so much, and it’s so fun watching other people start to read and love this as it gets closer to publication.
Pansies, Alexis Hall Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published)
I’m now wondering if my previous list of Alyssa and Cat and Tessa being my most instructive romance authors was wrong, and if Alexis Hall should be added to that list. Being that I am absolutely, completely, stupidly obsessed with Alexis Hall. Yes, okay, I’m doing it! My list is now Alyssa, Cat, Tessa, and Alexis Hall. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
I read all of the Spires stories this year (even though that, again, doesn’t feel real, I have definitely been reading them for like a decade at least) and I’m going to mention two of the other ones on this list too in a bit, but Pansies is the last of the series, the most recent one I read, and it just really hit me in the feels. I think because it takes place in a small town. The MC is a guy who used to be a bully back in high school, a big man around town who was similarly successful when he moved to London and made a lot of money but…still doesn’t really feel comfortable being an out gay man, still doesn’t really know who he is, and coming back to his small town, where he falls in love with this total messy disaster who’s trying to keep his dead mother’s flower shop alive while drowning in grief, this guy whom the MC used to bully in high school, it brings the MC to his knees basically. I mean, everyone in the Spires books are brought to their knees by feelings, which is why I love them so much. But queer small town feels are A Lot for me, and this book…yeah.
Well Met, Jen DeLuca Adult Contemporary Romance; 2019 (Berkley)
This was such a perfect comfort read for me. I think a book like this translates to comfort read when the world building is done really well. And in addition to the romance in this Renaissance Faire rom-com being just so good, I really felt like I was inside that Renaissance Faire, like I could live in the fictional small town of Willow Creek, and like I could go back there again and again. I mean, when we weren’t at the Ren Faire, we were in a bookstore! Loved it, and can’t wait for the sequel later this year.
When Dimple Met Rishi, Sandhya Menon YA Contemporary Romance; 2017 (Simon & Schuster)
This book brought me out of a major YA reading slump, which I am so grateful for! I’d been meaning to read Menon’s Bollywood-inspired rom-coms ever since this came out (and I now can’t wait to read all of her others), and I fell for both Dimple and Rishi, who meet at a coding camp for teens in the Bay Area (after their parents have already arranged for them to date and hopefully marry), so hard. This was one of those YA romances that also felt genuinely sexy to me [which I think is fair to say not in a creepy way but in a way that acknowledges that teens can have sex lives], where their relationship felt hard won and real and I was just dying for them to get their HEA, and then the HEA was so perfectly over-the-top romantic. This also includes a couple fantastic scenes where you get to see brown teens just really hand white kids their dumb arrogant asses. SWOON.
Get a Life, Chloe Brown, Talia Hibbert Adult Contemporary Romance; 2019 (Avon)
Talia Hibbert wrote one of my absolute favorite reads of last year (Work for It) and this one got so much great good hype that I knew I would love it, and yup, I really did!! This is another trope that I’m always into—the MC makes a list of Things To Do to Feel Alive! after living a relatively sheltered life. I will always love a list! She’s rich and successful at her job, but also suffers from chronic pain due to fibromyalgia, which causes her to rarely leave her apartment. She’s also fat and hot, which I love too. Also hot: Red (ugh, such a good hero nickname), the super of her apartment building who is hiding himself from his impressive art career. There are so many hijinks and sexy bits and a cat named Smudge. I am currently (im)patiently watching for its sequel to arrive at my house from Powell’s.
A Charm of Magpies series, KJ Charles Adult Paranormal Queer Romance (m/m); 2017 (self-published)
I am counting all three of these books as one because I read them all in a row in the space of like, a week, which was omg so fun! These books are also ~spooky~ which, as the world’s biggest scaredy cat, always makes me feel proud of myself! Seriously though, these books are different from most of the books I read (as this list shows), all nonstop action and suspense and I couldn’t tear myself away from them. These two dummies almost die for each other like a gajillion times and there are sex-fueled tattoos and I loved every second of it.
Flowers from the Storm, Laura Kinsale Adult Historical Romance [Regency (I think?) England]; 1992 (Avon)
This is one of those old school romances I’d been hearing about since joining the romance community, and I am so pleased to learn that the reason everyone loves Kinsale is because Kinsale is bananapants. Just non-stop, over the top drama. The first half of this book takes place in a mental institution, because the Duke of Jervaulx has suffered some type of affliction that’s never named but I assume was some type of stroke. It’s left him essentially mute, which obviously back in the day equaled insane, and his awful family ships him off to the institution and proceeds to attempt to steal all of his wealth and power. The woman who ends up being his nurse (basically) is of course the only person who believes he’s perfectly sane, and while she tries to fight for his salvation, she is also a Quaker who disagrees with everything the Duke stands for? Like, hardcore Quaker drama in here, which I was! not! expecting! I also wasn’t expecting a mental institution, but these are the joys when you jump into an old school romance that you knew absolutely nothing about beforehand!
You’ll note that there are a ton of m/m romances on this list but this is the only f/f, and there’s a lot to unpack there both concerning myself and the publishing industry, but right now let’s blame it on the publishing industry because that’s easier! f/f is simply not published NEARLY as much as m/m. (Malindo Lo has a lot of good essays about why.) You typically have to find queer small publishers to find f/f romance, at least until Something to Talk About! Whooo. Disclaimer: I know them and so I am biased!! But once I sat down and opened this slow-burn Hollywood-set romance between a lesbian show runner and her bisexual assistant, I couldn’t stop, and finished it within a day. It’s compulsively readable and charming and comforting. There are so many great side characters in here too, like Emma’s fat sister who runs a bakery. My favorite scene in the book is probably when Emma, the assistant, has an asthma attack when they’re on their way to a shoot, and Jo, the show runner who is previously Miss Professional At All Times, loses her shit (at least, for Jo), and ugh! When someone who doesn’t realize they’re in love with the other person yet sees that person get hurt or be vulnerable in any way and they get so disproportionately protective! *weeping face* Pump it into my veins!
Invitation to the Blues, Roan Parrish Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published)
This is the sequel to Small Change, which I also read this year and really loved, but Invitation to the Blues has stuck with me so hard for so many different reasons. I do hate this cover, though, because Jude’s red hair is LONG; it is mentioned so many times, Faron plays with it and braids it all the time so why is it short on the cover, I hate it. BUT I love everything else about this book. I love, first of all, that this book takes place in Philly! And both Jude and Faron are such interesting, memorable characters, and their chemistry is just…fantastic. Jude, whom we meet in the first book, is a musician who’s struggling with mental health after a suicide attempt, and the way Parrish describes depression here, and importantly, how Faron loves him—neither as a burden, nor as a problem to be “solved”—is so, so good. I think about this book so often even though it’s been months since I read it.
Love Lettering, Kate Clayborn Adult Contemporary Romance; 2019 (Kensington)
Clayborn is such a master of words in general, but what I think is so compelling about her is that her books feel both quiet and action-packed all at once, which is especially true of Love Lettering. She is so good at describing all the little details of a life, so that you feel like you know these people, inside and out, and it makes all the emotion packed into even the small actions in the pages so…intense, but in such a quietly realistic way. I absolutely loved the premise of the love story in here—a lettering artist who tries to both fall in love with her own art again and get a small-town man to fall in love with New York City by taking walking tours of the city’s best hand-lettered signs. This is already like, so up my alley that I am 100% there, but there is also a fantastic female friendship subplot that felt so realistically painful and important to me, and then, like, WHOA there is exciting stuff that I didn’t see coming at all. This book is lovely, through and through.
The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, Ben Philippe YA Contemporary; 2019 (HarperTeen)
This book is about a Haitian-French-Canadian kid who moves to Austin, Texas for his mom’s new job. He chronicles his Canada-to-Texas culture shock in his journal, framed by all the American high school tropes he’s seen in movies. Norris is such a caustically funny character that I both loved him and hated him, you know? (He is also so voicey that I frequently wondered if this should have been written in 1st person instead of 3rd, but I eventually got used to it.) But heart eventually shines through all of the self-deprecating humor. I love both Madison and Liam, two people Norris never would have expected himself to become friends with; they are both such great characters. And what I actually love about this book is that Norris is actually like…called on his shit. Or rather, he has to own up to the fact that his sarcastic, whipsmart attitude might be hilarious but also hurts people. Which, as a lover of HEAs, I simultaneously hate, because being called on his shit means that he doesn’t necessarily get an HEA. But it is arguably an HFN (happy-for-now), which is really probably the only honest ending for a YA. (Even though I still want the HEAs anyway, obviously.)
This book. All banging. All angst. All the time. This is the best enemies to lovers romance I will ever read, THAT’S IT, NO QUESTIONS. This is the second book in Reid’s Game Changers series, and like A Charm of Magpies, I consumed all of them within a week, and honestly loved all of them and can’t wait until the fourth comes out in the fall. But I will never get enough of Shane and Ilya, their HEA is the best, I want to read this book again and again, the grilled cheese and the lake house and all of it, UGH. I love this book and the rest of us out there who love it, collectively. I’m so glad we have this small joy in our lives together.
A Duke in Disguise, Cat Sebastian Adult Historical Queer Romance (f/m) [Regency England]; 2019 (Avon)
I caught up on Sebastian’s Regency Imposters series this year by reading both this and A Delicate Deception and really loved them both and had a hard time deciding which to feature here. So, whatever, just imagine I’m featuring both because I’m obviously going to talk about them both. It was interesting because both are super different—A Duke in Disguise is more action packed, about political activists in the city trying to break down the system (the system which one of them, of course, discovers he is unwittingly a part of), while A Delicate Deception is much more quiet, about two anxious people being anxious together in the country. I have to note that I’ve seen a few people on Amazon/Goodreads describe these books as the first straight ones Sebastian has written, and like I KNOW one should never read Amazon/Goodreads reviews, but just to be clear! These books are still hella queer! Like literally everyone in A Delicate Deception is queer, and I love how the heroine in A Duke in Disguise has only ever slept with women before so she’s like “huh, being attracted to a man, interesting, I mean I guess I’ll try it” or at least that’s how I pictured her thoughts in my own head. Anyway, bad people die, queer people get to live the lives they want, I love Cat Sebastian. (And no, I have not read Two Rogues Make a Right yet and I can barely stand it.)
For Real, Alexis Hall Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published)
I tried a few BDSM books before For Real, but the power dynamics in some of them…made me uneasy. For Real, for me, was the first kink book I read (which is likely 100% due to my own kink lit ignorance) that actually described the power dynamics in a way that totally made sense to me, that felt equal and beautiful and hot and wonderful. (All of which might be even more impressive considering this is also a love story between an older and a much younger man.) Totally worthy of the Lambda & RITA Awards this book won; just incredible. Have I mentioned I love Alexis Hall.
The Worst Best Man, Mia Sosa Adult Contemporary Romance; 2020 (Avon)
This is one of those rom-coms that is just so fun along with being steamy and sweet and interesting. The set-up of this one is great, wherein a Brazilian-American wedding planner trying to grow her business has to work with her ex-fiancee’s brother (the ex-fiancee who broke up with her the night before their wedding years earlier) on a business deal. Watching them fall for each other was so hilarious and satisfying; you really wanted both of them to win their end of the bargain! The whole sequence where they get roped into the couples’ retreat, from being trapped in those big plastic balls to the sexy sexy car scene the next morning, is one of the most memorable parts of a book I’ve read this year.
This is the only middle grade book on this list, which is interesting to me. I have been reading some middle grade (although I should be reading more), but this is the only one that really stuck in my heart this year, even though middle grade is often so easy to get stuck in my heart. Hurricane Season is about a girl with a mentally ill father, who becomes obsessed with Vincent Van Gogh because she thinks if she can understand Vincent, maybe she can understand her dad, and she can help him be better, so that CPS doesn’t take her away from him. It’s an all around gut wrencher that also has really lovely LGBT themes.
Wicked and the Wallflower, Sarah MacLean Adult Historical Romance [Regency England]; 2018 (Avon)
Sarah MacLean is one of those romance powerhouses that I had never read before, and now that I’ve finally read one, I get it! I have to admit it took me a little while to get into this one, because I felt like there was a lot of repetitive stuff at the beginning. BUT once the action really got going! Phew! I couldn’t stop reading, and I can’t wait to read the rest in this series. I also loved how the trajectory in this one (similar to The Prince of Broadway) was the opposite of what you read in many Regency era historicals, where women from lower classes accidentally land themselves a duke. Here, the MC does want to land a duke at the beginning, to be clear, BUT then is like, “What if I just want to lead a life of crime instead??” An obvious superior choice!
Glitterland, Alexis Hall Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published)
Glitterland was my first Alexis Hall and I still heart it so much. I’m including all the Spires stories here separately (& I should note that I did also read and love Waiting for the Flood but it didn’t affect me as much as the other three) because they are all so different, at the same time that they do have a similar feel. And that feel is feelings, lolz. What I remember loving so much about this one, an opposites attract story between a very depressed man and a literally glittery man, is how well Hall captures depression and mental illness (similar to Invitation to the Blues). But when I look back through some of my favorite quotes from this book, I forget how funny Hall is, too? Like, laugh out loud funny, and yes, I am dying to read his upcoming rom-com, I can barely even talk about it. But something else that’s captured in Glitterland and the other Spires stories that I appreciate too is the messiness of queer friendships sometimes, friendships that can meld into romantic or sexual relationships and back again, and it’s a particularly queer thing that only queer authors like Hall can truly get. These books are, in general, full of messy mess while still being so beautiful, and that is such a gift.
The Undefeated, Kwame Alexander & Kadir Nelson Picture Book; 2019 (Versify)
One day earlier this spring, back when we could still go into our jobs every day, I spent my morning reading through a bunch of picture books I had purchased for my middle school library and crying. There were probably better ways I could have been spending my work time, but also, probably not.
There are so many beautiful picture books out there these days, but this one is put together by two absolute powerhouses of kid lit and it is, in my opinion, one of those essential books that every child in this country needs to have available either in their home or their schools. Kadir Nelson is the illustrator of this New Yorker cover that has gotten a lot of traction lately, along with many other covers and many other remarkable books. His work is absolutely stunning, and having it overlaid with Alexander’s strong, joyous verse is impactful to your core.
Back in June, I made a list of my Top 25 Books of the First Half of 2020. In a few weeks, after I squeeze every minute of reading time I can out of 2020, I’ll make another list for my Top 25 Books of the LAST Half, to round out the year. Will this post be less rambly than the first one? PROBABLY NOT! I LOVE BOOKS!
Until then, here’s another roundup I’ve been wanting to do: talking about my most anticipated (adult) romance novels of 2021!
I limited it to 20 books, and to books specifically marketed as romance; if I forgot to mention your book here I’m sorry! I have a small brain and these were the first 20 that occupied it. Know that I am legit excited about any and all romance novels except for ones that involve Nazis or glorify toxic behaviors without accountability!!
Also: while most of these are published by mainstream publishers (the Big 5, or 4 now, since the Penguin Random House/Simon & Schuster merger…yay capitalism), one of my reading goals for 2021 is to read more self-pub titles and titles from indie publishers. So hopefully my actual Best Reads of 2021 posts will include more of those.
Obviously we have the most information about books coming out in the first half of 2021; I still threw in ones we don’t know much about yet, too. I’ve included covers and synopses from the publishers when available, and then provided my own succinct, very eloquent summaries for lazy scrollers like me. (You’re welcome!!)
Here we go! Listed in order of publication date:
The Ex Talk, Rachel Lynn Solomon (January 26; Berkeley)
Shay Goldstein has been a producer at her Seattle public radio station for nearly a decade, and she can’t imagine working anywhere else. But lately it’s been a constant clash between her and her newest colleague, Dominic Yun, who’s fresh off a journalism master’s program and convinced he knows everything about public radio.
When the struggling station needs a new concept, Shay proposes a show that her boss green-lights with excitement. On The Ex Talk, two exes will deliver relationship advice live, on air. Their boss decides Shay and Dominic are the perfect co-hosts, given how much they already despise each other. Neither loves the idea of lying to listeners, but it’s this or unemployment. Their audience gets invested fast, and it’s not long before The Ex Talk becomes a must-listen in Seattle and climbs podcast charts.
As the show gets bigger, so does their deception, especially when Shay and Dominic start to fall for each other. In an industry that values truth, getting caught could mean the end of more than just their careers.
Anita’s tl;dr: PUBLIC RADIO NERDS BANG IN SEATTLE!!