Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Romance Novels for Feminists BEST OF 2014

Contemporary



Emma Barry, Private Politics

Barry gives us an inside look at the world of political blogging, and its role in exposing government corruption, in this smart, lively romance about a nice Jewish guy who's not quite willing to act on his unrequited crush on the socialite friend of his bestie's fiancee. Thumbs up for Barry's thoughtful exploration of the uses and limitations of stereotypes in constructing identity.







Ruthie Knox, Truly

Quintessential Midwestern good girl May finds herself at sea in unfamiliar New York City after very publicly, and very embarrassingly, dumping her famous football player fiancé. Surly urban beekeeper Ben is reluctant to take on the role of knight in shining armor until he realizes that May might be in far less need of rescuing than he is. One of the few romance novels I've read to tackle the issue of internalized sexism with both sympathy and intelligence.






Sarah Mayberry, Her Kind of Trouble


Free spirit Viv is incensed when Seth, the brother of her sister's husband, questions Viv's fitness to be chosen as a potential guardian for their niece and nephew. Viv may have engaged in a hot one-night stand with Seth during her sister's wedding reception, but that was years ago. And besides, she's not the thirty-four-year-old who just got his twenty-four-year-old ex-girlfriend pregnant, now is she? Explores the broader implications of the sexual double standard as well as the relationship between unconventionality and responsibility.





Mary Ann Rivers, Laugh

A subtle interracial romance, a disabled hero who is neither shining example to the non-disabled nor prop to prove a non-disabled character's worth, and an unusual treatment of grief and abortion would be more than enough to place the second book in Rivers' Burnside series on the RNFF Best list. Add Rivers' lyrical writing, and you've got a rare treat: a romance that pleases both in story and in style.








Historical


Grace Burrowes, The Captive

When a romance author uses the word "captive," its typically in a romantic sense. But captivity is anything but romantic for Gillian, Lady Greendale, and her dead cousin's husband, Christian, Duke of Severn. Gilly insists on paying a call on the reclusive duke to upbraid him for abandoning his young daughter. But when Gilly sees the devastation that life as a prisoner of war has inflicted on Christian, recognizes that chastisement is the last thing that can help this traumatized man. Burrowes draws telling parallels between men being tortured as prisoners of war with women being the victims of domestic abuse as Gilly and Christian help one another struggle to find the will to live, and to love, after the pain has finally ceased.




K J Charles, Think of England


Manly Edwardian Archie Curtis accepts a country house party invitation hoping to uncover evidence that his host intentionally supplied faulty weapons to the military. But he discovers more than he bargained for when he is forced into a compromising position with fellow guest Daniel Da Silva, a man who, at least on the surface, is everything upstanding Archie is not. A joy not just for fans of Victorian and Edwardian literature (Archie is the nephew of one of H. Rider Haggard's male heroes), but for those who enjoy books that push us to question the boundaries of the labels we so often like to place upon each other, and on ourselves.




Meredith Duran, Fool Me Twice

A historical romance that makes a real effort to explain why its heroine is acting in ways far from gender-typical for her times, rather than just plopping a 21st century woman in the midst of a Victorian romance. Olivia Mather's upbringing as the child of a kept woman and a man married to another has made her determined not to allow others to judge her. Even others as lofty as the Duke of Malvern, who may hold the key to keeping Olivia safe from the person who brutally attacked her when she came to London. For his part, Alistair, Duke of Malvern, is a man disillusioned, one whose orderly life has been blown apart by his realization that most of the rules he's been living for are really just social lies—including his belief in the natural superiority of the male sex.



Rose Lerner, Sweet Disorder

Unusual for a historical, our heroine, Phoebe Sparks, is not an aristocrat, but the widow of a printer. England's unrepresentative election laws mean that there are only a few qualified voters in Phoebe's small town, and Phoebe, the widow of one of them, can bestow her former husband's freeman status, and thus an all-important vote, on whomever she decides to marry next. As the fledging politician standing for the Lively St. Lemenster seat needs each and every vote if he's to defeat the Tory candidate, his family calls on his older brother Nick Dymond, to come to town and coax (persuade? bribe?) the widow Sparks into marrying a qualified townsman. The last thing anyone intended was for Nick and Phoebe to fall for one another...  A deliciously-written, historically informed, and unconventional historical, with important things to say about the workings of desire.





Courtney Milan, The Suffragette Scandal

If I had gotten my hands on a copy of Milan's The Countess Conspiracy before January of this year, it certainly would have appeared on the RNFF Best of 2013 list. Lucky for me, Milan's latest was published in July, not December...

An actual suffragette as main character? A heroine whose political commitments we are asked to sympathize with, rather than laugh at? And a hero who isn't a sexist pig who needs to be disabused of his sexism, but who instead appreciates the intelligence and unconventionality of his potential beloved? A story that shows the costs, as well as the rewards, of espousing an unpopular cause? How could it not make the list? Throughout her career, Milan has demonstrated her unwavering commitment to feminist principles while never ignoring the historically specific gender roles by which societies attempt to police all women, and The Suffragette Scandal serves as a fitting capstone to her current body of work.


YA/New Adult

Sarina Bowen, The Understatement of the Year

After being publicly outed by his former college hockey coach, Rikker has no choice about being open about his sexuality. His former friend, and now current hockey teammate, Graham, though, clings tightly to his place in the closet, even when his first crush Rikker shows up as as an unexpected transfer student. When the two drift into hook-up territory, though, can Graham continue to keep his secret, and keep Rikker?

I've enjoyed the previous entries in Bowen's new adult The Ivy Years series, and not just because they are set at my (thinly disguised) alma mater. But I took special pleasure from book #3, in part because while the first two books in the series featured heterosexual couples, this one stars two young men. There's clearly a need for gay romance as a subcategory of romance in general, but I'm hoping to see more and more authors (and perhaps someday, even traditional publishers??) do what Bowen has: publish romance series that feature couples all along the sexuality spectrum.




Huntley Fitzpatrick, What I Thought Was True

A YA summer romance with real poignancy and depth. The lines between the townies and the summer people have always been clear to Gwen Castle and the other working-class kids of Connecticut's Seashore Island. Until the summer rich-kid Cassidy is forced by his father to take a job on the island. Something happened between Gwen and Cass last year, after he got kicked out of his prep school and transferred to her public one, something that the narrative takes a long time to reveal. Just like Gwen, who is close-mouthed even on a good day, never mind when faced with the prospect of running into Cass every day this summer. A compelling depiction of first love and its vulnerabilities, as well as a thoughtful exploration of the power dynamics of both class and gender.



Jandy Nelson,  I'll Give You the Sun

Subject mirrors form in this YA romance, with its dual narrators, adolescent twins Jude and Noah, recounting both their own and their sibling's first loves. It's not only the narrators who switch from chapter to chapter, but also the book's chronology, the stories of the sibling's thirteenth year (told by Noah) interspersed with those of their sixteenth (told by Jude). Each story contains the missing puzzle pieces needed to unravel the mysteries of the other, to be untangled and replaced back into a semblance of order by the reader. Sibling rivalry, grief, rebellion and conformity, and the importance of art form the underpinnings of Noah and Jude's love stories, both their romantic ones as well as their sibling one.


Robin York, Deeper


After her former boyfriend posts sexually explicit pictures of her on a porn web site, good-girl college student Caroline fears her dreams for the future have been irrevocably damaged. Getting involved with the school's hot, pot-dealing bad boy West Leavitt is not going to help Caroline fix her reputation, or hide from her shame, especially after she discovers him defending her honor by engaging in fisticuffs with her jerky ex. But when the bakery where West works ends up feeling like the only safe place on campus, Caroline and West gradually develop a friendship far deeper than anything she's experienced before. A smart, fierce rejection of "blame the victim" mentality when it comes to revenge porn.


Erotic Romance


Solace Ames, The Submission Gift

The first book in Ames' La Doms series (written with Heloise Belleau), made RNFF's 2013 best list; this second book more than lives up to its predecessor. A car accident left newlywed Jay incapacitated for more than a year; as a thank-you to his supportive wife, Adrianna, Jay decides to use some of the insurance money to hire a high-end rent boy, one who will take pleasure in the sex dominance play Adrianna loves but Jay doesn't. I've not read too many threesome romances where the characters are as interesting as the sex scenes, but Ames' gift for creating complex, compelling character makes this unusual romance one for the keeper shelf.





Christina Lauren, Sweet Filthy Boy

I never hopped on the Beautiful Bastard bandwagon, but found the first book in Christina Lauren's new Wild Seasons series a real charmer. The series is high-concept: three young women just graduated from college spend a wild weekend celebrating in Las Vegas, only to find themselves married by trip's end. Lola and Harlow quickly get their marriages annulled, but when Mia's French husband Ansel, as impulsive as she is serious, asks her to spend the summer with him in Paris before untying the knot for good, Mia finds herself unexpectedly on an airplane to Europe. Running away from her future has never been so much fun, or so confusing. Could it be that lighthearted charmer Ansel might just be running away, too? A fun read, with an ending that moves Mia far beyond damsel-in-distress rescued by a sexy Frenchman to young woman taking charge of her own life.



Cara McKenna, Hard Time

Is the local penitentiary the best place for a librarian trying to kick an addiction to bad boys to work? Even if Annie only spends one day a week there? Annie wonders, especially when she begins a steamy clandestine letter writing exchange with one of the inmates she's there to help teach. Nothing bad can happen with a guy in jail, can it? Neither Annie or Eric is ready when Eric is unexpectedly paroled...  Particularly intriguing not only for its exploration of a woman dealing with the aftermath of a relationship turned abusive, as well as its exploration of lovers' assumptions about what their partners should and do want, sexually, and how couples can communicate in order to move past said assumptions to discover the truths of their own, and each others', erotic desires.



Romantic Suspense


Suzanne Brockmann, Do or Die

Military derring-do is usually not my cup of tea, but Brockmann complicates the adventure action formula with this exploration of how former Navy SEAL alpha male learns to overcome his overprotective instincts, both toward the woman for whom he is falling, and for the younger gay brother whom he's always kept safe.




M. L. Buchman, Full Blaze

Buchman moves from the military setting of his Night Stalkers series to one equally as dangerous: wildfire fighting in his new Fire Hawks series. I missed the first two books, but book #3 contains all of same features that made the Night Stalkers so successful: tense action, informed technical detail, and just enough character development and romance arc to keep the romantically-inclined flipping pages. Aussie helicopter pilot Jeannie finds herself immediately attracted to photographer Cal when he joins Mount Hood Aviation for a week's shooting. But though Cal travels light, he's weighted down by more than a little emotional baggage, baggage that makes him an unlikely candidate for more than a one-night-stand. When Jeannie's bosses offer Cal a more permanent job, though, will Cal duck and run, or face the flames? Buchman's heroines are consistently as competent as his heroes, and his heroes (and his readers) love them for it.




Nicki Salcedo, All Beautiful Things

Attacked by a white man seven years ago, wealthy socialite Ava cannot please her family by returning to her pre-trauma self. Feeling "unborn," Ava wanders the night, photographing other victims of crimes, all the while assuring everyone that she's "fine.
Ava's repressed emotions come painfully to the surface, though, when Graham Sapphire, the brother of the man convicted of assaulting her, asks for her help in exonerating him. Not just a compelling romance, but a complex portrait of a victim of trauma coming to terms with her own emotions, and with the gendered and racial biases behind her victimization.





Jill Sorenson, Backwoods

Terror displaces pleasure on a camping trip when Abby's daughter, Brooke, is kidnapped by two distinctly sketchy male hunters. Abby, Nathan, and Nathan's son, Leo work together to pursue the kidnappers and rescue Brooke. A romance that refuses to engage with many of the disempowering tropes of the romantic suspense subgenre, exploring instead parent-child relationships and how gender norms affect them.






Short Stories/Novellas


Laura Florand, Shadowed Heart

I'm a huge sucker for Laura Florand's character-based storytelling, so what could be more of a pleasure than revisiting a couple who already featured in their own full-length romance? Luc and Summer of The Chocolate Heart have married and moved to the south of France, their new restaurant recently opened. Perfectionist Luc is spending all of his time at the restaurant, leaving Summer alone, insecure, and friendless. And when Luc, who talked so dreamily about having children, seems to pull away even more after Summer reveals that she's pregnant, the negative behavior patterns both Summer and Luc learned from their messed-up childhoods come back to threaten their happily-ever-after. That we need our friends as well as our lovers in order to keep our romances healthy, and that the climatic "I love you" doesn't guarantee everlasting happiness, are both messages not often conveyed by traditional romances, messages well-worth repeating.



Cecilia Grant, A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong

Grant is a writer unafraid of featuring characters that readers would likely find unappealing without the sympathy, insight, and humanity with which she paints them. Andrew Blackshear, the eldest and stuffiest of the Blacksheer siblings, attempts to purchase a falcon as a Christmas present for his soon-to-be-wed sister, and instead finds himself snowbound with the eccentric falcon-breeder's irrepressible daughter. I just loved responsible, priggish Andrew, especially as he gradually came to realize that following convention, especially when it comes to one's emotions, may not be the most prudent path to take. But what put the story on this list was the fact that both its hero and its heroine were equally sexually inexperienced, something I'm guessing was far more common in the 19th century than our current historical romances would have us believe.


Sarah Frantz (editor), Summer Rain

It's rare to find a romance story collection that both supports a feminist cause (RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) and tells stories that help readers imagine what a feminist heterosexual relationship might look like. But Summer Rain managed to do both, with emotion and skill. Am looking forward to digging into the second book in the Love in the Rain series, Winter Rain, just published this past November...








What's Missing?


• Fantasy and Science Fiction romance

Am I just too picky a fantasy & sci fi reader? Or is my refusal to read later books in a series before I've read earlier ones making it next to impossible to discover the latest feminist fantasy & sci fi romances out there? I'm sad that a genre I spent nearly a decade of my life teaching never manages to make it onto my "best of" list when it comes to romance...


• Lesbian romance

This one's been a real frustration for me this year. My library rarely stocks lesbian romance, even in their e-catalog. And I've discovered that most publishers tend to price lesbian romance, even e-books, as they would conventional literary romance, in the $10 and up range, rather than in the more affordable $2-5 range of most other genre romance. Any suggestions for ways to get access to more f/f romances without breaking my bank would be appreciated!


• More romances with people of color


Any reviewers out there who have interest/expertise in any of the above categories, and would be interesting in penning a guest review or two for RNFF? Let me know...


What were your favorite feminist romances of 2014? I'm eager to catch up on what I missed from 2014 before the deluge of 2015 releases begins to flood my e-reader and my office.

23 comments:

  1. I haven't had a lot of luck with sci fi or fantasy romance either. I love it, but it seems like inevitably either the romance or the world-building suffers when you combine genres. How would you classify steampunk though, out of curiosity? I've got several favorites there and I'd call them...well...speculative fiction at least?

    Great picks, by the way. Your best of list from last year gave me a bunch of new favorite authors so I'll have to check out Meredith Duran, Jill Sorenson and Sarah Mayberry now.

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  2. Glad to hear that I'm not the only one disappointed with the current crop of sci fi/fantasy romances. I'd definitely put steampunk in the "fantasy" arm of "speculative fiction." What steampunk romances appeal to you?

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    1. Alexis Hall's Prosperity came out last year and if I made "Best of" lists, that would be on it. I'd call it...hm...steampunk romantic horror? One of the romantic arcs begun in Prosperity has its happy ending in Liberty though, which came out this year. Very unconventional and might not appeal to everyone, but I loved it.

      Delphine Dryden also has a steampunk series I've enjoyed. I'm not sure those make the same list as Think of England, Hard Time or Private Politics, but they're strong romances with compelling world-building. I think Gilded Lily is the most recent, but I'd read them in order.

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  3. OMG, that Jandy Nelson novel is just wonderful. Actually, I liked a *lot* of your list! Deeper, for one...

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sarina. I adored THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, and I'LL GIVE YOU THE SUN is just as amazing. I love it when I find a book that both my teenage daughter and I can both devour...

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  4. Beyond honored to find my book on this list, especially since the other YA contemporaries listed are particular favorites all--Sarina Bowen, Jandy Nelson, Robin York...and Sarina Bowen's thinly-veiled Ivy series is set at my Alma Mater too....Thank you so much for thinking of my book.

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    1. Then you must be Huntley Fitzpatrick. Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for writing such a great book! Am kicking myself for not moving MY LIFE NEXT DOOR off my TBR pile yet...

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  5. I love that you included Huntley Fitzpatrick's book on this list--I think she gets overlooked on lists of feminist books for teens (probably because she does write romance-focused novels). I'd include Jennifer Echols' Biggest Flirts on my 2014 YA list (and the others in that series, which are out this year)--she does such a great job at portraying girls' experiences and is very positive in her treatment of teen girls and sex. She also pushes the envelope in terms of the "likability" factor, which I especially appreciate in YA.

    As far as adult contemporary romance, I thought Molly O'Keefe did some very interesting things with her most recent novel, Indecent Proposal--it defied my expectations and subverted a trope (baby-marriage) that I generally find problematic.

    I thought Mary Ann Rivers' book was really super for all the reasons you listed as well, by the way.

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  6. Thanks, Sarah, for your recs. I've never read Jennifer Echols, somehow; just interlibrary loan requested BIGGEST FLIRTS...

    And I love Molly O'Keefe's work, too; wrote about INDECENT PROPOSAL here:
    http://romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-politics-of-baby-marriage-molly.html

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  7. Oops. I just lost my comment. Grr. I recommend in fantasy romance the following authors and books:
    Grace Draven's three books, Master of Crows; Entreat Me; and Radiance, which she serialized on her blog and will be published shortly.
    CL Wilson's Tairen Soul series and The Winter King (2014), the start of a new series.
    Cindy Spencer Pape's Gaslight Chronicles series and Motor City Fae series are fun.
    KJ Charles has a m/m magical Victorian series, beginning with The Magpie Lord, which I love to my surprise since I tend to shy away from m/m.
    She introduced me to Jordan L. Hawk's Whybourne and Griffin m/m magical/horror 1890s series that makes references to HP Lovecraft's work. It starts with Widdershins.
    There's a dearth of science fiction romances but if you haven't read any of Linnea Sinclair's books, go read her now.
    Happy New Year!
    Yours,
    Jenny

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    1. Thanks, Jenny, for the recs. I should check out your Goodreads list more often!

      I read THE WINTER KING, which I found quite anti-feminist (you can see my thoughts on it on my Goodreads review), and so am a little wary of reading any more by her. Will check out your other recs, for sure!

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  8. Oh, I will have to pour over this list when I get a chance! A lot of interesting titles! Have you read Ilona Andrews' Burn for Me? It may have made your Best Of.

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    1. Gnureads: Just got BURN FOR ME for Xmas, and have yet to dive in. It's moving closer to the top of the TBR pile...

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  9. There are two fantastic romantic fantasy series that you might want to check out.

    The first is a current series by Kathleen Kerridge: Searching for Eden. The first two books are m/m, but there will be some based on secondary characters so there will be some m/f stories as well. The main heroes are gay, which explains the setting for Into the Woods and The Call of The Dark. However, some readers were upset that there were m/f scenes in the second book. Ms. Kerridge is a fantasy writer, not a m/m author. It just so happens that her main characters are gay men.

    The second series is a m/m series. It began in late 2010, and ended with its seventh novel in April of last year. It is the Nightrunner Series by Lynn Flewelling. There is also a compilation book thrown in there along the way. The romance doesn't truly begin until the second novel. But if you are truly a fan of fantasy writing, the romance is an added bonus. These novels range from about 500 to 560 pages apiece.

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    1. Thanks, Megan, for the recs. I look forward to checking them out.

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  10. No Jeannie Lin/Liliana Lee? I haven't read her steampunk story (yet, though only she and Meljean Brook would get me to read steampunk), but she's my favorite of current writers when it comes to story and writing ability.

    To me, Lin's novels are as feminist as Courtney Milan's, but they're set in a different culture and their feminism may not be as obvious to us because the setting is not one that values romantic love as much as we do. Her stories really value balance in a relationship; ultimately, her pairs, while not at all like each other, are egalitarian because they balance each other out and, in some cases, cross class lines..
    In The Lotus Palace, Lin did the revolutionary thing of making the couple's first experience of sex underwhelming for the woman. It got better with time as they dropped their masks and got to know each other better. And using a setting where sex is viewed in more instrumental (functional?) terms and less in romantic/moral terms challenges out paradigm of what love is. Heady stuff.

    Summer Rain had some of my fave stories, but it also had my least faves by authors everyone else seems to love. I liked Winter Rain better overall because I thought the quality was more consistent, plus it had f/f and m/m as well as m/f. .

    -lawless523

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    1. I strongly disagree with you about The Lotus Palace I'm afraid. I hope you'll excuse me if I repost a comment I made elsewhere on the subject"

      The Lotus Palace was by and large quite good. It’s set in the Tang Dynasty (circa 850 AD by the Western calendar), and does not skimp on historical details and politics. (I was puzzled by a reference to soup flavored with roasted chiles.) It has a good murder-mystery plot. He’s a rich and frivolous elder son of a nobleman, she’s a former prostitute now free of her debt to the brothel and working as a courtesan’s maidservant. I really liked that the book spent a lot of time carefully analyzing the enormous gulf in status, power, and privilege between the two of them, and how her lack of options shapes her view of the world in ways that he just can’t understand. His starry-eyed optimistic view of romance, of love being able to overcome anything, is the product of never even facing the possibility of not getting whatever he wanted, whereas she points out that he can’t marry her because it would stain the reputation of his entire family, and gloomily predicts that her becoming his concubine would kill their love. He struggles to understand her limitations, she struggles to look beyond them, and an enormous sense of frustration builds up—it’s well done. All resolved a little too simply though, when his mother turns out to be on the side of love and talks his father into letting them marry, but we aren’t told what they’ll do about the family-reputation thing which is a very real problem.

      But… here’s where I have to voice a big reservation. At one point the H saves the h from the bad guys, and afterward they have sex, and it’s different from when they did before (which I had liked because he was gentle and not completely overbearing). I quote:

      There was a quiet urgency in him she’d never experienced before…. Beneath his expensive clothing, Bai Huang wasn’t dissolute and sheltered. He was fierce when pushed to it. Protective. When he eased himself into her, it was as if he belonged there, his body fitting inside her until there was no room in her heart or mind for anything else…. There were no preliminaries, no soft caresses or whispered words. Though sensation built within her, the act wasn’t as much about pleasure as it was about possession. Even when he took her breast into his mouth as her pleasure rose, it was an attempt to claim her further. His tongue rasped against her nipple until she wept and moaned. With each thrust of his hips, he was willing her climax, her surrender to him. And she did surrender, her muscles taut and straining until she thought she would break.

      In other words, he has now matured and earned full hero status, and marks it by dominating and possessing the heroine fully for the first time (an idea repeated during the rest of the book). Which is clearly the author’s point of view not merely a historically-appropriate one. To which I say, yuck. This idea that a fully-worthy hero, by virtue of being protective, owns his woman and obtains her utter surrender—no, no, no; especially when lots of ink was spilled earlier about her desire not to be owned by anyone. That one page was almost enough to kill my respect for the book entirely.

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    2. I've enjoyed reading Jeannie Lin's books, especially THE LOTUS PALACE. But with the exception of LOTUS, I've found her characters lacking in development and nuance.

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  11. My favorite lesbian romance this year was Hellcat's Bounty by Renae Jones. I also liked Flight by Kate Christie (YA). It had a great 90s NYC GLBT neighborhood setting. Heroine is a bike messenger. :)

    Both reasonably priced.

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    1. Thanks, Jill, for the recs. Am off to order copies right now...

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  12. I definitely must recommend "Choosing You" (previously published as "A Choice Fit for a Queen") by Jenny Trout. It's a NA novella where a young woman is trying to figure out what to do with herself the summer after college and she does a lot of growing, which her relationships with two different men are part of. As you might expect from this author, it's explicitly feminist.

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    1. Thanks, Vasha, for the rec. Sounds interesting...

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  13. Thank you for this fantastic review! "The Captive" is a definite favourite of mine. Here is my list of top 15 historical romance novels of all time: http://catehogan.com/top-15-historical-romance-novels/ Some classic and more current titles. I'd love your feedback!

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