Meredith Duran, At Your Pleasure
With At Your Pleasure, Duran proves herself as adept at depicting the early Georgian period as she is at the Victorian. Political and religious differences, as well as past history, should keep former lovers Adrian Ferrers, Earl of Rivenham and Nora, widowed Marchioness of Towe, at daggers drawn. Yet serving as Nora's jailor proves far more difficult, and dangerous, than the world-weary Adrian could ever imagine. A more traditional romance than in Duran's previous books, yet one in which heroine and hero craft a relationship of equals.
To save her family's honor when her bookish younger brother refuses his commission as a midshipman, Sally Kent boards the Royal Navy's Audacious in his place. Family friend Lieutenant David Colyear soon sees through her disguise, but Sally's skills, as well as his own secrets, keep him from revealing her identity. Cross-dressing heroines can often be difficult to buy into, but Sally's history (the only girl in a family of seafaring men) and her skillfully delineated character—quick, compassionate, and daring—make her impersonation not just credible, but compelling.
In her 2011 debut, A Lady Awakened, Grant overturned traditional romance conventions to surprising, and deeply moving, effect. She continues to do so in this companion volume, the story of sibling Will Blackshear. A honorable man in need of quick money, Will reluctantly joins financial and intellectual forces with mathematically-skilled courtesan Lydia Slaughter to rake in winnings at the gambling table. Will's war-related guilt tags him as a conventional Regency hero, yet the skill of Grant's writing allows not just Will, but more surprisingly, Lydia (who for most of the novel is being kept by another man, a huge romance no-no), to blossom in to complicated, original, and above all sympathetic characters.
Juliana Gray, A Lady Never Lies
Some might think it presumptuous for a first-time romance author to steal a plot from Shakespeare. Yet like Shakespeare, who borrowed most of his storylines from other writers, newcomer Juliana Gray deploys her gift for language to make a tale all her own, retelling Love's Labour's Lost in the age of the birth of the automobile. Bossy, bold, and unexpectedly impecunious Lady Alexandra Morley schemes to regain her riches by using her wiles on inventor Phineas Burke. Yet their burgeoning attraction keeps interfering with her best-laid plans, as well as her determination to win her bet with the Duke of Wallingford that the men living at the Italian castle will give into lust long before the women. With all the charm, wit, and style of the best stage comedy, Gray's book is the best debut of the year.
Courtney Milan, "The Governess Affair" and "What Happened at Midnight"
I'm not typically a fan of novellas; they often come across as simply underdeveloped novels, an easy way to make money in this age of the short e-book. Yet in the hands of Courtney Milan, the form proves equal to the message of these two thematically related stories. Both "What Happened at Midnight's" Mary Chartley and "The Governess Affair's" Serena Barton have been betrayed by men they should have been able to trust. Yet once a victim does not mean always a victim, especially if a woman determines to act in the face of adversity: "She had stopped hoping to be granted her heart's desire. She was going to start taking it now" (WHaM 167).
Ilona Andrews, Steel's Edge
This year's installment in Andrews' Kate Daniels' series, Gunmetal Magic, proved a melodramatic soap opera of a disappointment. But the fourth book in this pseudonymous husband-and-wife team's Edge Chronicles more than made up for Gunmetal's lacks. Detailed but never dull world-building, taut action scenes, and a gradually-building romance between two very damaged people who both manage to keep going in the face of horror and pain make for a fitting conclusion to the plot arc begun in On the Edge. Here's hoping that the younger generation of Edgers warrants its own series in the years to come...
Meljean Brook, Riveted
Though the steampunk world remains the same as in Brook's two previous Iron Seas novels, Riveted features a hero far different from the alpha male of The Iron Duke and the charming schemer of Heart of Steel. David Kentewess initially follows Annika Fridasdottir because he believes she may hold the key to his dead mother's secret past. Yet as these two romantically-inexperienced characters gradually reveal their vulnerabilities to us and to each other, David comes to realize that Annika may be just as important to his future as she is to his past. Click here for full RNFF review.
Gail Carriger, Timeless
Carrying a romance across multiple books, especially past the point when the typical romance would end (with marriage or some other form of commitment) can be a difficult challenge for a writer. Yet in Carriger's skillful hands, the romance between alpha werewolf Connall Maccon and his equally alpha wife, Alexia (nee Tarabotti) Maccon continues to charm. "Dandelion fluff upon a spoon" might be a description of a vampire's dirigible, but they also serve as fitting characterization of this fifth and final volume in Carriger's light, witty, and entirely delightful series.
Florand's follow-up to the delectable The Chocolate Thief proves an even more delicious confection. Moving far beyond the typical battle-of-the-sexes (or in this case, battle-of-the-cooks), Florand's story of the supremely confident scion of a Paris pastry shop dynasty and one wary woman who refuses the gift of his hand-made macaron proves as tantalizing as a pot of Magalie's chocolat chaud. The sexual tension between potential lovers Philippe and Magalie keep readers on the edge of their seats, while fairy-tale allusions urge them to think deeply about the powers of witches and princesses, the differences (and perhaps more surprisingly, the similarities) between princes and beasts. Full RNFF review here.
Molly O'Keefe, Can't Buy Me Love
I'm not usually a fan of sports romance, but O'Keefe's deft touch with characters who are all far more than they appear to be quickly won over this reluctant reader. Tara Jane Sweet agrees to help dying boss Lyle Baker draw his spoiled estranged children home by pretending to be his gold-digging finance. Son Luc, a famous hockey star, storms back to Texas ready to save his sister's inheritance from a shallow, selfish blond bimbo. Both Tara and Luc need to move beyond their biased expectations, as well as their own difficult pasts, before they can recognize not only the importance of the relationship that develops between them, but that each, despite his or her flaws, is worthy of love.
Barbara O'Neal, The Garden of Happy Endings
A story about a disillusioned minister and the lover who gave her up to become a priest could have veered into the lurid, or even the maudlin. Yet O'Neal proves once again why her books have garnered so many awards over the years by offering us a different kind of second-chance story, one that allows its characters to grapple not only with the meaning of romantic and other kinds of love, but also with the problem of maintaining or recapturing faith in one's passions, be they religious or romantic, in the face of an often senselessly cruel world.
Jennifer R. Hubbard, Try Not To Breathe
With her two main characters—Ryan, a teen who tried to commit suicide, and Nikki, a young woman whose father succeeded in doing so—Hubbard gives voice to the two main audiences for this book: those who have suffered from depression, and those who haven't, but want or need to understand. Not a light read, but a moving, important one that offers hope for both those suffering from mental illness and those who love them.
Kristin Cashore, Bitterblue
Young queen Bitterblue has none of the magical abilities of Cashore's previous fantasy heroines, and her story is not a quest-narrative, but a stay-at-home and pick-up-the-pieces-after-the-catastrophe plotline, so many readers might find it disappointing after the adventure and romance of Graceling and Fire. Yet Bitterblue asks readers to ponder deeply important political and personal questions. How can one help people who have been victimized by their corrupt leaders to become active participants in their own government? How much should we take into consideration people's past history of suffering when we judge their own abusive actions? And perhaps most relevant for a teen audience, how can we learn to part gracefully from someone we still love? How do we accept that love is sometimes not enough to keep people together who have different life goals? Bitterblue, yes, and bittersweet, but well worth reading for those who are able to check expectations at the door.*
In looking back on my year's worth of reading, I was surprised and disappointed to see how few YA books I'd made it through. I'm guessing that at least a few of the following would have made it onto this best of 2012 list if I had taken the time to read them (which I will do in the coming months, and report back):
Madeleine George, The Difference Between You and Me
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Jessica Spotswood, Born Wicked
Huntley Fitzpatrick, My Life Next Door
Tabitha Suzuma, Forbidden
My list is also remarkably white, and remarkable straight, much to my chagrin. Reading goals for next year will definitely include broadening the scope of my romance selections.
What were your favorite feminist romance reads published in 2012? And what are your romance reading goals for 2013?
* FYI, in the interest of disclosure, Kristin Cashore was a student in a class I taught on children's and YA Fantasy and Science Fiction at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College.
Next time on RNFF
Feminism and the Military:
M. L. Buchman's I Own the Dawn and Wait Until Dark