Friday, January 5, 2018

RNFF Best of 2017


Contemporary Romance




Adriana Anders, Under Her Skin (Blank Canvas #1)


It was difficult to pick just one of Anders' outstanding titles in her Blank Canvas series. But I ended up choosing book #1, for its portrayal of an abuse survivor gradually reclaiming her life, and her ability to care for both herself and others. Bonus points for refusing the patriarchal "I help the woman I love by beating up the men who have hurt her" trope so common in the romance genre.



Austin Chant, Coffee Boy



This is a 2016 title, but I read it in 2017, so it still counts in my book. A short but very entertaining novella featuring just-graduated-from-college Kieran, who takes on an internship in a San Antonio senator's campaign office which is not quite as trans-friendly as his mentor had promised him. I loved Kieran's cranky humor; it was refreshing to see a trans character portrayed not as sad or afraid, but as really annoyed by others' confusion about his gender, and the micro-aggression of their responses to same. And I also appreciated his gradual realization that his lack of professional drive might be due not only to his crush on fellow office mate Seth, but also to his frustration with "everyone staring at him and wondering what he is" (Kindle Loc 714).



Aya de León, The Boss (Justice Hustlers #2)


Intersectional feminism meets romance meets heist tale in this unusual story set against the background of New York's sex worker community. Tyesha Couvillier, former sex worker and current director of a woman's clinic serving the city's sex workers, is attracted to bad boy rapper Thug Woofer, thinking his misogynistic lyrics wouldn't influence how he treated her. But when misogyny his proves more than song-deep, Tyesha kicks him to the curb. She's too busy planning heists from the male exploiters in the city with her female co-workers to have time for that sexist shit. But Woof proves surprisingly persistent, especially after some anger management counseling courtesy of his record label gives him the language to explain his own oppression and his less-than-productive reactions to it. Can Woof bring himself to really respect Tyesha? Can they keep open their clinic in the face of opposition from both the criminals and the "respectable" of the city? Will Tyesha and her gang pull off the biggest heist of their careers? Feminist readers will want to know!



Alexis Hall, How to Bang a Billionaire


Hall's male/male take on 50 Shades of Gray not only critiques its predecessor's kink-shaming message, but does it with spot-on characterization, a witty narrative voice in slacker Oxford student Arden St. Ives, and the kind of humor that makes you want to turn to the beginning all over again as soon as you've come to the last page, for just one more joyful jolt of laugh-out-loud goodness. Book #2, How to Blow it with a Billionaire, which was published in December, is just as fabulous.





Tasha L. Harrison, The Truth of Things


Heterosexual romance is filled with heroes whose professions are all about public service. But what happens when the society in which you live considers those public servants part of the problem rather than part of the solution? When dating a cop is tantamount to dating the enemy? Grounded in the anger and the hope of "Black Lives Matter" movement, The Truth of Things proves that great romance can be about confronting real life, rather than simply escaping from it.





Julie James, The Thing About Love


James continues to write strong, ambitious women in male-dominated professions who can go toe to toe with their male colleagues as well as with their male lovers, especially when it comes to verbal sparring. Her romantic pair in this book are two FBI agents with a past (super-competitive during their days together in FBI training school) who meet again when one is transferred to the Chicago office and is assigned to work a bribery investigation with the other. Neither Jessica nor John is ready for a new relationship, both just coming off of bad breakups, but the old animosity from their training days re-emerges, manifesting itself as sexual tension rather than plain old competitiveness. James gives us flashbacks of the duo's time at Quantico, in "She Said," "He Said" chapters that show how easily misunderstandings blossom in environments where women are forced to guard against both harassment and disparagement of their talents, and men take their gender privilege for granted.



Ruthie Knox, Completely (New York #3)


Thirty-nine year old Rosemary Chamberlain (ex-wife of Winston, the hero of Knox's Madly), is tired of being the expensive decorative paper on someone else's wall. To regain her sense of self post-divorce, she's decided to live out her pre-marriage dreams by joining an all-women expedition to scale the world's largest seven mountains and writing a book about the experience. But shock, not empowerment, sets in after an avalanche buries the base camp on her current climb, killing several of Rosemary's fellow climbers. Uber-confident Rosemary has a post-accident melt-down (of the sexual variety) with younger Kalden Beckett, one of the "ice doctors" guiding her climbing party. But the two opposites find their trauma experiences keep driving them together, leading both to reassess their life goals. Knox's romances are always ideologically rich, and I loved the environmentalism and social justice aspects of this one as well as signs of Knox's more characteristic feminist concerns. And Rosemary—brusque, witty, self-contained, very aware of her race and class privilege but not afraid about using them, either—is an unusual, but compelling, heroine for a feminist romance novel.


Ruby Lang, Clean Breaks (Practice Perfect #3)


Dr. Sarah Soon, "maker of lists, taker of names, kicker of asses," has just finished being treated for Stage 2 melanoma. But she's been strangely unmotivated and lethargic, unable to bring herself to return to the OB part of her OB/GYN practice, or to interfere in the lives of her friends and fellow practice partners. Enter Jake Li, a friend of Sarah's older brother, a guy who had been a constant in Sarah's life growing-up. Jake, recently amicably divorced, is eager to strike up a new kind of relationship with fierce Sarah, whom he's always found appealing but feared he was too geeky to attract. To her surprise, Sarah is interested (Jake's grown up to be a hot, as well as a kind, man), but she's also fearful, fear which expresses itself via crankiness, snark, and unexpected bursts of anger.  I love angry romance heroines; not only are they far too rare in the genre, they also validate my own moments of frustration and striking out because of it. The story doesn't belabor the fact that Sarah is acting out of her fear of dying, but it is central to understanding her usually totally-in-control character now gone awry. Lang also challenges stereotypes about the lack of sex appeal of Asian men, even while she has Jake protesting what his friends, and American culture at large, tries to push on him as the right, masculine way to be a recently-divorced male. Lang interrogates these and other gender issues with humor, wit, and verve.



Christina Lauren, Dating You/Hating You


Two Hollywood agents meet awkward at a party, and go on a first date, but when their competing agencies merge, the two wind up pitted against each other for the one spot in the department that will remain post-merger. The book's sell copy suggests this will be a classic Battle of the Sexes story: "What could have been a beautiful, blossoming romance turns into an all out war of sabotage. Carter and Evie are both thirtysomething professionals—so why can't they act like it?" But Carter (who is actually twenty-eight to Evie's thirty-three) wasn't the embodiment of the unthinking sexism that the male half of most BofS's romances typically feature. But even though Carter espouses none of the privileged male beliefs that undergird most sexist workplaces, Lauren shows how even feminist men can still be the unwitting beneficiaries of male privilege, especially in a sexist workplace. It takes some major back and forthing, some managing of competitive flare-ups, and some honest discussions of privilege and feelings before Evie and Carter can begin to come close to figuring out how to work as true colleagues rather than as cutthroat competitors. And some seriously hot trysts before they can come together not just as friends but as lovers, rather than sublimating their desires into secret, silly sabotage.


Tamsen Parker, In Her Court (Camp Firefly Falls #18)


Parker gives the "crush on your older brother's best friend" trope a queer turn when older brother's friend turns out to be a geeky lesbian. Many romances that rely on this trope feature an oder brother who seems less like a friendly protector and more like a cock-blocking tool of patriarchy, unable to acknowledge younger sis's right to a sex life. But in Parker's story, the focus is on the romance between Willa, a graduate student filling in as a tennis instructor for her injured older brother, and Van, said older brother's tech-inclined best friend. Parker writes with humor and insight about nostalgia, nerdiness, and the academic rat race (Van's a burned-out professor; Willa's hoping to jump on the tenure track after earning her degree) as she once again turns traditional romance tropes on their heads.


Roan Parrish, Small Change


Ginger Holtzman dropped out of high school at sixteen to work as an apprentice in a Philadelphia tattoo shop. Eighteen years later, she's now the proprietor of said shop, the only female-owned tattoo business in the city.  In contrast to the dominant mode of the tattoo industry, which has a long history and reputation of being male-dominated, Ginger has actively tried to create a more accepting vibe in her own shop, a place where both men and women, no matter their race, sexuality, or gender identification, feel safe and welcomed. Ginger controls her tattoos ("Tattoos are the scars you choose), but has plenty scars of the "unchosen" type, too, some from her family, who have never understood why she could not mold herself something closer to the feminine norm tha ther mother and sister so easily inhabit, and some from the negative reaction of others to her gender queerness, both when she was a child and even now, as an adult. Given her prickly background, Ginger has a hard time opening herself up to relationships, but thirty-year-old sandwich shop owner Christopher Lucen has a temperament as sunny as Ginger's is prickly. Does Ginger have to make a choice between being with Christopher and maintaining her hard-won independence? Or is there room in her life for both? There are so many terrific feminist moments in Parrish's book, my favorites the ones that focus on refusing the dominant romance trope of competing with other women by denigrating them. Small Change is still my favorite feminist romance of 2017.



CD Reiss, King of Code


Reiss tackles the sexism in the tech industry in this mystery/romance, pointing out just how overt, and how damaging, are the industry's identification with male goals, male feelings, and the male gaze are, as well as the field's consequent objectification and denigration of anything labeled female or feminine. Especially in smaller start ups like the one headed by Taylor Harden, the hero of Reiss's romance, work environments can feel more like carry-overs from a frat house than professional adult spaces, and the idea that women are distracting, dangerous, and even potential legal liabilities is far too often the norm than the depressing exception. To be a King of Code, one has to banish all the princesses and queens. So when a hacker disrupts the unhackable code Taylor's company has built its reputation on, Taylor can't believe said hacker could be a woman. A belief that gives Harper Barrington a leg up in her cat-and-mouse game with Taylor, a game that has implications not only for women in tech, but for all the inhabitants of the small town her family once employed in their now defunct bottling plant. Watching Taylor gradually realize the consequences of his unthinking sexism, and begin to take responsibility for it, is even better than the steamy trysts he engages in with the elusive Harper.





YA/New Adult:


Becky Albertalli, The Upside of Unrequited


Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso has a penchant for unrequited crushes. She's had twenty-six of them, in fact, and is ripe to start working on number 27. Crushes are so much safer than actually revealing one's feelings to a potential romantic partner, especially for an overweight girl like Molly. Even the urging of her love-em-and-leave-em queer twin sister Cassie can't get her to leave the safe space of crushing for the more tempestuous waters of an actual date or boyfriend. But when Cassie herself falls hard for another girl, and for the first time doesn't want to talk it all over with Molly, Molly finds herself out in the cold. Should she start in on another crush? Perhaps on the wonderfully convenient best friend of Cassie's new love, hipster boy Will? Or should she trust that her budding friendship with geeky Tolkein-lover Reid might bloom into something more? A spot-on look at early dating and romance, set in a community where diversity of all types (racial, economic, gender, sexuality) is taken as a matter of fact rather than as something unusual or special.



Jenn Bennet, Alex, Approximately


Seventeen-year-old self-proclaimed "Artful Doger" Bailey Rydell is moving to California to live with her dad after her mother's new marriage starts to falter. Trauma during her early years has made her an "evader," a master of avoidance: "The key to avoiding uncomfortable situations is a preemptive strike: make sure you see them first" (47). But working in a funky local museum alongside extroverted security guard Porter, who is part Jewish, part Polynesian, part Chinese, and all California surfer cool, makes Bailey's dodging ways hard to maintain. This frenemies to romance ("This is going to sound weird. . . but I think we're compatible arguers" [2781]) is chock-full of both appealing primary and secondary characters and both humorous and touchingly vulnerable moments. Bailey's journey from Artful Dodger to not-yet-outspoken but willing to take a few risks to get what she wants (including a romance) is a compelling one, especially for shy or introverted readers.

Heidi Cullinan, Shelter the Sea (The Roosevelt #2)


Cullinan follows up on the romance between two unusual lovers—Emmett, super smart and neuro-diverse (on the autism spectrum), and Jeremey, who suffers from debilitating anxiety and depression—which began in Carry the Ocean, the first book in this series set in an independent living facility for adults with special emotional and physical needs. When the state of Iowa restructures its mental health system (and benefits), The Roosevelt, where Emmett and Jeremey live, is put in danger, and Emmett finds himself becoming the spokesperson for the campaign against the state-wide changes. Cullinan is known for writing Hallmark-type happy ending stories for queer characters, but she doesn't pull any punches here, showing just how difficult it can be for those who are labeled "not normal" to advocate for the resources, and the respect, they need and deserve to live fulfilling lives.


Megan Erickson & Santino Hassell, Mature Content (Cyberlove #4)

*Added 3/18: The author known as Santino Hassell has been accused of multiple acts of abusive behavior (see "The Santino Hassell Debacle" for specific details). Readers who do not wish to support an author who behaves in such a manner may wish to avoid this and other books by Hassell.

Another strong entry in Erickson and Hassell's male male romance series, set within the cutting edge of the gaming/social media communities. Two gay vlogggers who have diametrically opposing online personas (TrashyZane, who glories in his open and kinky sexuality, and Beau Starr, who always focuses on the positive in his straight-laced gay celebrating videocasts) clash in public. But Beau's "clean" online presence hides a secret: in bed, he's far less vanilla than any of his readers might imagine. An opposites-who-aren't-actually-all-that-different story, which emphasizes the need for sex positivity for queer young men as well as for women, and which includes fascinating discussions about personal identity in the age of social media.


Cass Lennox, Toronto Connection series


I loved every book in this series, one of the first I've read that doesn't slot queer characters of different types off into their own separate subgenres, but instead features queer characters of all types as friends and lovers: a gay male paired with an asexual guy; a trans man and bi-romantic woman; a drag queen and his boyfriend, who isn't quite as out of the closet as he's led his partner to believe; and two lesbians in a fake-girlfriends story. Crafting a fictional world in which her characters are in the process of coming to understand that the cultural expectations they've grown up with about sex and romance are not necessarily true, and finding community with a group of friends and with romantic partners who are also working to "unpick the toxic crap" of those cultural expectations alongside them, makes for liberating, and validating, reading.


Sara Taylor Woods, Hold Me Down (Carolina Girls #1)


Daddy fetish and feminism? If someone had told me five years ago that I'd be putting those two ideas in the same sentence, I'd have laughed them out of the room. But Sarah Taylor Woods has convinced me it's possible. Woods' debut romance is told in the first person by college junior Talia, who, ever since she can remember, has been fascinated by bondage and pain. But her fantasies and desires bother her, especially given her progressive values: "Never mind that I'd identified as a feminist since I learned the definition of it. I was so invested in determining my own future and making my own decisions and being as good as any man walking down the street—but as soon as I got my clothes off, boss me around, hurt me, threaten me, humiliate me. How on earth was I supposed to reconcile that?" (2068). But when she meets and starts dating grad student Sean Poole, whose sexual proclivities might just be a match for hers, Talia may be ready to understand the difference between abusive sex and consensual BDSM. "Where was the line between getting off on someone else's pain and being a fucking monster? Was I rationalizing? Was that something abuse victims did? Justify it with but we're both getting off? Could one-sided violence really be consensual?" (2677). That Woods offers no easy answers to these questions, but ultimately grants her protagonist the freedom to decide for herself what will be her own "normal," what best constitutes her own happiness, makes for an unusual, and decidedly feminist, new adult romance.



Historical


K. J. Charles, An Unnatural Vice (Sins of the Cities #2)


Each of the books in Charles' latest male/male series, books set in the milieu of the Victorian sensation novel, are worthy of a place on RNFF's list. But my favorite of the three is the middle book, which pairs thirty-seven-year-old crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy, still grieving the death of his (male) partner after five years, and Justin Lazarus, the "Seer of London," a fraud of a spiritualist who preys on the recently bereaved and credulous. But even if Justin is a fraud, he has a dangerous way of seeing into a person's vulnerabilities—especially Nathaniel's. When the two have to flee the city to escape men intent on killing Justin, the two gradually begin to understand the strong-willed human beings behind the privileged, righteous prig and the selfish gutter fraud spiritualist. Hot hate-sex that gradually develops into cross-class understanding and respect—now that's a romance writing achievement that you don't see very day. But Charles pulls it off with her trademark strong characterization, accurate historical grounding, and suspenseful storyline, making readers not just relate to, but care for, her prickly, unlikeable-at-first lovers.


Alyssa Cole, A Hope Divided (The Loyal League #2)


Almost all of my favorite "best of 2017" romance lists includes An Extraordinary Union, the first book in Cole's "Loyal League" Civil War series. But to my mind, the second book, A Hope Divided, is far more successful as a romance, albeit a slow-build one. Heroine Marlie Lynch is in a fascinating position to comment both on privilege and oppression: the daughter of a former enslaved woman, she currently lives with her white father's family (although neither her white sister or brother openly talk about her parentage or their relationship to her). She and her white sister, Sarah, have been actively involved in white resistance efforts in Carolina for the three years the Civil War has raged, but even Sarah doesn't know that Marlie has agreed to house escaped, injured prisoner of war Ewan McCall in the hideyhole in her own bedroom, a decision that grows ever-more dangerous after Marlie's brother and his southern wife come to live at the family plantation. Marlie and Ewan are both curious intellectuals, Marlie with both her folk and her Western science knowledge of medicine, and Ewan with his investment in Greek Stoicism and the logic that calms his often tumultuous mind (another hero on the autism spectrum). Their respect for one another's brains, which plays out in conversations about philosophy and social justice, as well as their attraction to each other's bodies, makes for a gradually-building but deeply felt romance.


Victoria Dahl, Angel (Bartered Hearts #1)


Despite being a major Dahl fan, I somehow missed this 2015 erotic historical romance and its sequel/ precursor, Harlot. But I'd put Dahl's unusual Christmas novella about an African-American woman forced into prostitution and the white man who first buys her wares, then comes to love her, retroactively on RNFF's "Best of 2015" list. Melisande must come to terms not only with her own attraction to her unlikely suitor, but with the choices her mother made on her behalf, choices that led her to sex work in the first place. Did her mother betray her? Or give her the strength to make her own choices, choices that might be far different from her mother's?





Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole, Hamilton's Battalion: A Trio of Romances


Cole, along with Milan and Lerner, write some of the best historical romance fiction out there, and this collection of three novellas, set during the American Revolution and its aftermath, showcases their skills. I like to believe that the authors were inspired by Aaron Burr's advice to brash, outspoken Alexander Hamilton in the musical Hamilton: "Talk less, smile more." For those who have seen the play, or are familiar with its lyrics, know that Miranda's Hamilton could never have followed Burr's well-intentioned advice. Speaking, and speaking out—loudly, abrasively, and often—is the way that Miranda's Hamilton "gets the job done." As do one of the partners of each romantic pairing in Hamilton's Battalion. The collection's premise is that Hamilton's wife, Eliza, is collecting stories from all who knew him in preparation for writing his biography. The book's first two stories purport to be letters written by soldiers who served in Hamilton's military battalion at Yorktown, while the third features the woman currently employed by Eliza Hamilton to take notes during her interviews. That Eliza Hamilton would be so charmed by the love stories of Jewish soldiers, of gay male soldiers, or by an interracial romance seems far more fantasy than reality. Yet that such soldiers did serve in the Revolutionary army—Jewish ones, queer ones, even female ones—is the stuff of history, not make-believe, as each writer's Authors Note makes abundantly clear.


Elizabeth Kingston, Fair, Bright, and Terrible (Welsh Blades #2)


The second book in Kingston's medieval Welsh series tells the story (and backstory) of Gwenllion's hard-driving mother, Eluned. The book opens with Eluned defeated, all her plots to win freedom for Wales form King Edward I in ruins. Subject to the will of men once again, Eluned is told by the King and by her son to remarry—none other than Robert de Lascaux, the man with whom she had a passionate affair as a young married woman. But all Eluned's passions have been ground into the dust by a mad husband, the betrayal of her daughter, and the execution of the last Welsh princes. The only thing left in her heart is a desire for revenge. Unlike Eluned, Robert has been nursing his passion for Eluned ever since she sent him away. He's thrilled to have the chance to wed his true love, even if the marriage pleases the father he's always set himself against. But when Robert finds himself tied to a woman who seems as far from his beloved as is a stone from silk, he begins to see the immaturity of his passions. Kingston works unexpected wonders with the old lovers reunited trope, showing both how life experiences can change a lover almost beyond recognition and that some pieces of a person's character still remain, even in the wake of the worst tragedy and trauma.




What were your favorite feminist romance reads of 2017?



5 comments:

  1. Ooo, I had no idea the sequel to Carry the Ocean was out!

    I've read some of these and am making a list of the others. I think _Small Change_ was my favorite from this list, as well as one of my absolute favorites of the year. Did you not read any of Alisha Rai's books? Her women characters are fierce and independent but also vulnerable.

    I suspect you'll get some pushback over The Upside of Unrequited as a feminist book, although not from me.

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    1. Would love to hear your thoughts on SHELTER THE SEA, Willaful!

      I did read Alisha Rai's two Forbidden Hearts novels, and really liked them. But I had to cut down my list somehow! This was my thinking: The feminism of most of the other books on this list is not in the characterization of the female characters only, but in plot and/or theme as well. Rai's books feature diverse characters and strong female leads, but in plot and tone these two stories have more conventional angsty star-crossed lovers romance FEELS than social critique in them.

      Do you disagree?

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    2. Mmmm... hard to say without having read all the books you chose. They're probably more conventionally romantic in many elements, but that doesn't necessarily diminish the strength of the critique that's there.

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  2. I don’t know why Alexis Hall’s series is not getting more press—they are fantastic and funny, I love their emotional intensity, the play of various literary motifs aside from 50 Shades, and the second book is just devastating. More tense than Rebecca, the book I know the plot of but have never read past page 50 because I can’t bear the developing tension.

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    1. They are fabulous, aren't they? Here's hoping book #3 brings them all into greater prominence!

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