Emma Barry, Private PoliticsBarry 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, TrulyQuintessential 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, LaughA 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.
Grace Burrowes, The CaptiveWhen 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 TwiceA 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 DisorderUnusual 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.
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.
Sarina Bowen, The Understatement of the YearAfter 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.
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 SunSubject 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.
Solace Ames, The Submission GiftThe 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 BoyI 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 TimeIs 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.
Suzanne Brockmann, Do or DieMilitary 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 BlazeBuchman 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 ThingsAttacked 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, BackwoodsTerror 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.
Laura Florand, Shadowed HeartI'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 WrongGrant 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 RainIt'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...
• 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.