K. J. Charles, A Gentleman's Position
A Regency romance between an aristocrat and a servant, but one that moves beyond fluffy fairy tale to explore the real differences in power and privilege in England's class system of the early 1800s. Whenever one of his friends finds himself in trouble, Lord Richard Vane turns to his valet, David Cyprian, to find an ingenious way out. But when Richard and David inch toward acknowledging their attraction to each other, Richard's scruples about their different positions in society, and his own prejudices about what makes a man worthy, create barriers too strong to break. But if wily Cyprian can't tear them down, perhaps he can find away around them...
Emma Barry & Genevieve Turner,
Penny Bright Publishing
This third volume in Barry & Turner's 1960s space race series draws on the often forgotten history of women in the early days of computer science in its story of a secret romance between the two smartest engineers at the ASD (American Space Department). Both caustic Eugene and sexy-smart Charlie are introverted thinkers who excel at keeping their feelings private. But when Charlie realizes that two "freaks" might just be able to find some solace together, the sexual sparks begin to fly.
Courtney Milan, Her Every Wish
This novella in Milan's second Victorian romance series steps back from the wealthy family featured in the full-length novels to explore the lives of their less privileged friends. Working class Daisy Whitlow dares to enter a church-sponsored contest to win the funds to start her own business, even though the unspoken rules say the contest is only for men. Crash, Daisy's one-time lover, is equally determined to introduce the new French craze for velocepides to the English. Both learn to demand what they deserve, from society and from each other, even while continually being told that women, that men of color, that the working classes have no right to want anything at all.
Molly O'Keefe, Tempted
When her employer, Dr. Madison, proposes to Annie Denoe to save her reputation, his nurse finds his kiss far more interesting than his offer. But Annie would far prefer to explore her newfound interest in the carnal side of life with her friend, Steven Baywood, than with the drug-addicted doctor. Unfortunately, Steven's incarceration during the Civil War in the notorious Andersonville prison has made him unable to stand another's touch—not just emotionally, but physically. A nuanced exploration of the traumas of war on both men and women, one that offers the hope that healing is never completely beyond reach.
A womanizer who is truly debauched, and the morally upright woman who is not afraid to call him on his thoughtless, cruel behavior, make for an unlikely but compelling duo in the final book in Satie's No Better Angels series. Gorgeous prose and deft character construction combine to redeem the perhaps most overused trope of historical romance: the redeemed rake.
Amber Belldene, Not a Mistake
Rather than link finding a mate with finding God, as is the case in the majority of Inspirational romances, Belldene explores how two people's deeply-held religious beliefs affect the course of their romance. Only two weeks into her first job as a newly-minted Episcopal priest, Jordan Sykes discovers that her post-graduation one-night stand with her favorite professor has led to unexpected consequences. Reverend Doctor Dominic Lawrence, a professor of religious ethics, has long been the ministry's go-to guy on issues of clergy sexual abuse, a reputation that his tryst with Jordan is likely to put in danger. Should the two try to make a romantic go of it for the sake of the impending baby? To protect Dominic's career? An unusual story that celebrates the passion that lies at the heart of both religion and romance.
When the issue of rape first emerged in heterosexual romance, it often served a very sexist purpose: a hero would capture/beat up/kill his beloved's rapist, and thereby prove his love for her. Bowen eschews such sexist treatment by focusing instead on the effects a rape can have on an existing romance. High school lovers Gigi and Leo could not find their way back to each other in the wake of Gigi's assault, and Gigi broke off their relationship. Now, six years later, both are working hard to establish themselves in their respective careers—Leo as a pro hockey player, Gigi as a publicist for the team. But when Leo's feelings for his first love reemerge, and in a very public, embarrassing way, Gigi has to decide whether she and Leo have changed enough to overcome the debilitating patterns of their past to create a relationship than can endure.
Emily Foster, How Not to Fall
An outstanding debut by an author who was "totally sure it was possible to write a romance about a college student who experiences her sexual awakening with an older, more powerful man, in a way that was sex positive, feminist, and medically accurate, as well as sexy as heck." Foster is completely successful in accomplishing her anti-50 Shades of Grey mission—and in writing a humorous, joy-filled romance to boot.
Alexis Hall, Pansies
Ah, Alfie Bell. A working class bully who grew up taking for granted all the heteronormative assumptions of his culture—until he realized as an adult in London he was far more turned on by men than by women. Going back home for a wedding leads to awkward conversations—and a hot encounter with the queer boy who was once the victim of his bullying. Only Alfie doesn't realize just who it was that he'd picked up in that bar... Hall takes the trope of enemies (bully vs. victim version) to lovers in surprisingly fresh directions, creating real empathy not only for once-abused Fen, but for fumbling, not very introspective, but ultimately deeply kind former aggressor Alfie.
Santino Hassell, First and First
Another impressive m/m romance from Hassell, even more remarkable for demonstrating that he can portray the denizens of wealthy Manhattan with as much skill as he can the blue and white collar workers that featured in the previous two books in the Five Boroughs series. Uptight Caleb, still reeling from a bad breakup, finds in outspoken, independent Oli someone who can appreciate him not just for his wealth or his sexy body, but for his uptight but deeply loyal self. Thumbs up for the plotline about their creation of an app "that aggregates data from the dozens of queer dating web sites and presents a diverse seletion of candidates from those different places after a user inputs specific tags. No categories or narrow limitations.... The point is that whoever you are, and however you identify, you're not forced into a box" (1794).
A romance in which being trans is not a spectacle, and in which the conflict between the lovers is not about the "big reveal," but instead about the ways that problematic responses by her family to protagonist Maria's trans identity have shaped her, and her ability to trust in love. Add in a Shop Around the Corner pen-pal romance between real-life enemies, thought-provoking rebuttals against "women don't belong in science" claims, and a hero with his own history of familial emotional baggage, and you have the makings of a cutting-edge contemporary romance.
Ainslie Paton, Sold Short
Supervised by Cats
Ignore the false-advertising cover. Our heroine is not a pole dancer (as in an earlier book in Paton's Sidelined series), but rather the co-owner of a successful Silicon Valley tech company. After working her tail off for years, and watching two her male co-owners find romantic partners (see books #1 & 2), Sarina is starting to think about starting a family of her own. Without, however, going through all the hassle of finding a man first. Two of her partners are totally behind her. But best friend Dev, the caretaker who holds the company together, unexpectedly blows a gasket. A thoroughly modern friends to lovers story, with a decidedly feminist take on the traditionally conservative "woman longing for a child" storyline.
Beecroft is proving to be the most versatile of feminist authors, as adept at writing historicals and contemporaries as she is at writing science fiction romances—all which inquire deeply into issues of gender. In Lioness, two opposites—a formerly lauded but now disgraced "holy warrior," Aurora Campos, and Bryant Jones, a scientist imprisoned for his embrace of advanced but banned technology—crash land on a hostile planet after the prison starship Campos is captaining is attacked by rebels. Neither regards the other (or the other's culture) with much respect, until their struggles force them to rethink some of their simplistic stereotypes. But their relationship becomes strained after Jones, hoping to protect Campos, uses his banned scientific knowledge to transform her into a man...
Faith Hunter, Blood of the Earth
I've long been a fan of Hunter's Jane Yellowrock books, so was super excited to hear that 2016 would see the start of a new series, one set in the Yellowrock world but with a new set of characters. This first installment of the Soulwood series features Nell Ingram, a former member of a religious cult who has a strange connection to the land on which she lives. Future romances are hinted at for Nell and for the other members of the band of young Psy-LED agents whom Nell is asked to join to investigate the disappearance of several local girls, one of whom is connected to the area's most powerful vampire clan. Readers looking for competent, independent, and powerful female leads in their paranormal romance need look no further.
Kai Ashante Wilson, A Taste of Honey
An immersive fantasy about two cultures conducting diplomatic negotiations, in which two men fall in love despite their cultural differences. Aqib, fourth-cousin to the Royal Family of Olorum, an son of the Master of the Beasts, has always been regarded with scorn by his more powerful, athletic warrior brothers. But Lucrio, a light-skinned warrior with the visiting delegation from Daluça, seems to have nothing but admiration for the dark-skinned young man. Before Aqib even knows it, the two are caught up in whirlwind romance—a romance for which Aqib would be condemned by his family and country if it was ever discovered, for the Olorums do not condone (or even acknowledge) same-sex relationships. With the Daluçan mission soon to end, Aqib faces an difficult choice: should he leave his culture behind to forge a life in far-away Daluça with Lucrio? Or should he give in to the royals' insistence that he wed the female heir to the Olorum throne? Glorious writing, an unconventional plot structure, and an ending that I for one did not see coming combine to create a provocative imaginative read.
And finally, I couldn't resist this brief call out to two not-quite-romances that I think will be of interest to feminist readers:
Gabby Rivera, Juliet Takes a Breath
Riverdale Avenue Books
A YA/NA coming of age story told in the first person by Juliet Millagros Palante, a Puerto Rican Bronx lesbian college student who has her mind blow open (in ways both empowering and disturbing) during a summer internship with Harlowe Brisbane, a west coast hippie white feminist, and author of Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. Combining equal parts humor, anger, education, and understanding, Rivera delves deep into the connections that draw all women together, and the barriers (privilege, prejudice, racism) that continue, even in spite of the best intentions, to keep white feminists and feminists of color apart. A vital read for those wishing to think about what intersectional feminism means in the lives of actual people, rather than just in the feminist theory books.
Rachel Kramer Bussell (editor)
Best Women's Erotica of the Year
A collection of stories that not only seeks to turn you on, but also strives to make you think: about gender, about power, about age and sexuality, and about all the different ways that a diverse collection of women can and do get their sexy on. A definite bedside keeper!
What were your favorite feminist romance reads of 2016?