Friday, January 4, 2019

RNFF's Best of 2018



HISTORICAL


K. J. Charles, Band Sinister


Another stand-out historical romance from Charles, this one set in the Regency. Shy Guy Frisby finds himself a guest in the house of his disreputable neighbor, Sir Philip Rookwood, after his overly-inquisitive sister takes a bad fall while spying on Sir Philip and his guests. Guy may be timid and stammering, but when it comes to standing up for his sister, no one is braver. If only Guy would care as much about Philip, who has an abundance of friends and casual lovers, but no one who has ever chosen to care about him solely for himself... Charles takes the two men from distaste and dislike through gradual appreciation, attraction, and deep caring, with a convincing warmth and charm.



Elizabeth Kingston, House of Cads


An insouciant yet pragmatic Frenchwoman exiled from London after being pushed to the edge of respectability by a past scandal is drawn to an American ex-conman trying to earn a respectable living by peddling gossip about the ton in a historical that crackles with equal parts wit and lust. Marie-Anne is recalled from her country exile by her almost sister-in-law, who is desperate for her help in disengaging her two sisters from unsuitable betrothals. One of which is to the aforementioned disreputable American, Mr. Mason, who proves far more attracted to the lady intent on breaking up his engagement than with his actual fiancée. My favorite het historical of the year.



Jude Lucens, Behind These Doors (Radical Proposals #1)


Society-page writer Lucien Saxby has little in common with titled and wealthy people about whom he writes—until a sexual encounter with the Honorable Aubrey Fanshawe turns into something more than a pleasurable one-time event. But Aubrey is already emotionally and sexually involved with a husband and wife of his own rank, a relationship which he cannot trust a journalist to keep secret. Or can he? An unusual Edwardian-set historical that combines rich class critique, sympathetically-drawn characters, and polyamorous relationships to brilliant effect.




Courtney Milan, After the Wedding (The Worth Saga #2)


A romance about two people with irrepressible hope as the cornerstone of their characters—especially when the two are involved in an interracial romance in Victorian England—would not typically be my cup of tea. Yet such is Milan's skill that she makes such characters not just understable, but immensely sympathetic an appealing, even to one like me who is prone to undervaluing the Hufflepuffs of the world. Add in a trenchant critique of whites who purport to be allies in the struggle against racism but who continue to push aside any real demands for change with the excuse that "others" aren't quite ready for it yet, and you've the making of a historical that does more than just feature historical marginalized characters: you have a historical that puts their experiences, and the racism against which they struggle, at the center of what is typically all too often prefers to ignore, rather than highlight, the deep racism upon which the fantasy of the historical romance past is too often built.



Peckham's debut proved a strange, but deeply compelling read: a historical that took its history seriously, but which also included a strong BDSM/erotic thread, a far from usual combination. Poppy Cavendish, granddaughter to a viscount, is about to lose her beloved greenhouse, and all the plants she's been cultivating therein, after the death of her guardian, her unconventional beloved uncle. But when the sister of her neighbor, the Duke of Westmead, offers her a commission to decorate her brother's ballroom with her blossoms, and throws in help moving her plants as part of the payment, Poppy agrees, despite having to spend time with the brusque Duke. For his part, Archer is on the look-out for a wife, and decides to propose to Poppy, framing the proposal as strictly business: she will provide him with an heir, and he will give her the money to start up a major plant importing business. She should not expect him to give her love or affection in return. To Poppy's surprise, though, their early married days are tender and affectionate. So when Archer inevitably pulls away, Poppy is both hurt and deeply unhappy. I enjoyed Peckham's deft character development, and the clear affection both Poppy and Archer slowly develop for one another, and am looking forward to reading more by this new author.



A historical with decidedly contemporary, and intersectional, concerns, featuring a white man who formerly moved in elite society but who has been exiled due to rumors about his youthful affair with an older gentleman, and a black former boxer who now owns his own pub and spends his time helping others in his community in Regency London. Sam encounters Hartley while trying to help his soon-to-be sister-in-law recover a salacious portrait of her, a painting commissioned by Hartley's now-deceased former lover. Race and class are not the only obstacles to Sam and Hartley's growing affection and attraction; Hartley's earlier relationship, which was built on coercion rather than consent, has made him afraid of being touched. A bit darker than Sebastian's debut novel, but still rich with hope, charm, and joy.


Erin Satie, Bed of Flowers (Sweetness and Light #1)


A beauty and the beast retelling set in a small town in mid-Victorian England, a town that's been economically decimated by a fire eight years earlier. That fire, accidentally set by Orson Loel, the pampered heir of the local lord, pushed Bonny Reed's family from wealth to shabby gentility, a position from which Bonny's incipient marriage to local scion Charles Gavin is meant to liberate them. But when Bonny calls on her enemy Lord Loel to beg for additions to the circulating library she and her friend Cordelia have established for working-class women, a mishap with one of Loel's prize orchids means Bonny is in her enemy's debt. And after the reclusive Loel tells her a shocking secret about her intended, Bonny has to decide whether to keep sacrificing for her family's sake, or to take a more ethnical stand in the face of social wrongs.



FANTASY


Austin Chant, Peter Darling


This is a 2017 release, but I did not read it until this year, worrying that my familiarity with the original story (I taught Peter Pan for more than a decade to children's literature students) would get in the way of my enjoying this retelling. Boy was I wrong. Chant's Peter is a trans man who returns once again to Neverland after ten years back in the real world, unable to conform to a life as the female Wendy Darling. But life in Peter's fantasy world has changed drastically, with the make-believe of war now turned deadly—and with Captain Hook, once his dreaded enemy, now a compellingly attractive temptation. Bursting with intelligence, unexpected turns, deep emotions, and lovely language, Chant's brief novella is one of the best Pan retellings I've ever read.



Talia Hibbert, Mating the Huntress: An Interracial Romance


Hibbert was a new discovery for me this year, and I could have put almost any of her many 2018 releases on this list. But I decided on Huntress for its clever invoking and inverting of traditional fantasy and romance tropes, especially the deeply problematic trope of the fated mate. When Chastity Adofo was a baby, an oracle prophesied that if she followed her family's tradition and became a huntress, "her first kill would rip out her own heart." Her overprotective family has kept Chastity from the hunt for werewolves ever since. But when a werewolf walks into Cup o'Go, his attention fixed on her, Chastity vows to take him down and take her rightful place in the family hunting matriarchy. Weaving a story about issues of consent into a story about fated mates takes a truly inventive author; that Hibbert not only accomplishes it, but does it with such comical flair, makes her one of the most talented romance authors to come along in many a year.



YA/NEW ADULT


Sarina Bowen, The Accidentals

While Bowen established herself writing New Adult romances, The Accidentals proves she's got just as deft a touch writing about high schoolers as she does depicting the college-aged. Nearly eighteen, Rachel is reeling from the death of her mother, and from the unexpected appearance of the father she's never met, rock star Freddy Ricks. Rachel's best friend Haze wants Rachel to stay with him in Florida, wary of her absentee-father's sudden interest, but Rachel decides to take a chance by spending the remainder of the summer with Freddy. And then she's off to prep school in New England for her senior year come September. The novel focuses as much on Rachel's developing relationship with her father as it does on the love triangle between Rachel, Haze, and Jake, a swoonworthy guy she meets at her new school, but its tackling of how to balance one's commitments to friends (especially male ones) with one's own needs and desires earns it a place on this year's list.



Mary H. K. Choi, Emergency Contact

Penny Lee (Korean, not Japanese, thank you very much, geisha-referencing bully classmate) can't wait to get out of her decidedly not diverse Texas home town and escape to college at UT Austin. Serious Penny is seriously done worrying about her rather hapless single mom; she's hardly expecting to become someone else's "emergency contact" in Austin, especially hot barista Sam, the twenty-one-year-old sort-of uncle of her new roommate. I loved that this debut author had the courage to write a flawed, often unpleasant main character, and to wait until deep into the story to explain why Penny is so cruel to her teen-like mom. Also loved that Sam, who first becomes Penny's text-only friend, and then her IRL one, is kind and emo, even while his own far worse lack of family support has him majorly struggling with adulting, especially after his former girlfriend tells him she might be pregnant. The writing here has frequent laugh-out-loud moments, and is especially adept at depicting the difficulties people, especially teens, often have in communicating, not just out of fear of their own vulnerabilities, but also out of plain confusion about what they actually want from and for themselves and others.


Claire Kann, Let's Talk About Love

Nineteen-year-old Alice is hoping to spend a quiet summer at her job at the library, taking time off from dating after being dumped by her former girlfriend for not caring enough about sex. But she's thrown for a loop by her unexpected attraction to her new coworker, Takumi. Alice has finally figured out who she is (asexual, biromantic, definitely not a lawyer-to-be, despite pressure from her all-lawyer family); why is she suddenly changing now? And what should she do about Takumi, who definitely seems to like her, too—not just romantically, but sexually? And about her best friend and roommate Feenie, who is suddenly jealous of all the time she's spending with Takumi, despite having a boyfriend of her own? Especially when her modus operandi is to dodge and avoid, not to speak out and confront?


Susannah Nix, Advanced Physical Chemistry (Chemistry Lessons #3)



Nix has become my go-to author for romances about the current generation of post-college feminist women. In this latest addition to her Chemistry Lessons series, "pleasantly plump" Penny Popplestone decides to take a break from dating after her fourth boyfriend in a row cheats on her. After some serious self-analysis, Penny realizes that her propensity to take care of others often leads to taking too much care of her lovers, which leads them to take her too much for granted. Her determination to change her "nice girl" ways leads her to pursue the hot but shy barista at her local coffee shop; when Caleb tells her he's leaving town in a month for med school, Penny pushes herself to take a risk and jump into her first sexual relationship with a clear end date. Being "not nice" has never been so much fun...




Cathy Yardley, What Happens at Con (Fandom Hearts #4)

Yardley bills her romances as "fun, geeky, and diverse," a promise her Fandom Hearts series delivers on in spades. I enjoyed Level Up, the first book, when it came out back in 2016, but somehow the series managed to drop off my radar after that. Which means that I got to enjoy binge reading the subsequent 3 novels and 2 novellas which Yardley has since written in one delicious gulp this past fall when I came across Yardley again. I'm pretty oblivious to many of the nerdy pop culture references littered throughout the series, but I do appreciate the clear feminist messages in the books, especially the one that says feminist heterosexual women prefer men who support them, rather than push them to the back in their rush to protect them from harm (i.e., prove their superior masculinity). What Happens at Con was especially appealing; Yardley clearly has sympathy for her white privileged alpha-hole hero, but never lets him off the hook for his sexism and racism, working to educate, rather than just condemn him as he struggles to make sense of his attraction to strong, smart STEM grad student Ani.


CONTEMPORARY

Rebecca Grace Allen, Her Claim (Legally Bound #2)

High-powered lawyer Cassie Albright (39, half Cuban, half Caucasian) has been "battling the gender gap and racial bias" for as long as she can remember. Hearing from one of the boys' club partners that she hasn't yet made herself "invaluable" to the firm, and that she needs to bring in more big business if she wants to make partner, is just the most recent obstacle she's had to overcome. She lets off some of her work tension by verbally sparring with friend-of-a-friend white boy Patrick, a certified "man-whoring chauvinist pig." But when the two take their sparring from the barroom to the bedroom, Cassie's able to indulge in power play fantasies that she never before had the courage to ask for: "She wanted a man to prove himself—to show that as tough as she was, he could be tougher. Because what turned her on the most was the idea of being physically controlled by someone she couldn't fight off." How Cassie comes to reconcile her multiple, often conflicting identities, while inspiring Patrick to confront his own baggage, makes for a kinky romance as thought-provoking as it is sexy.


Kate Clayborn, Best of Luck (Chance of Lifetime, Book #3)

I've enjoyed Clayborn's entire Chance of a Lifetime series, which focuses on three female friends who banded together to purchase a surprise winning lottery ticket, but was particularly drawn to the heroine in this one, quiet observer Greer. Greer's used her share of the winnings to pay off the debts of her parents, incurred largely through paying for treatment of the chronic illness with which she was diagnosed as a teen. Only one thing stands between her and finally finishing her college degree: a missed art requirement. The professor will only let her enroll late in a photography class if her friend, Alex Averin, a world-famous photographer, agrees to participate, too. Greer turns the situation from on in which she is yet again dependent into one which will help Alex, too: she'll allow him to instruct her in photography if he agrees to get help from the panic attacks he's been suffering from since returning from his latest trip. Clayborn does deft, sensitive work portraying the difficulties both of dealing with a chronic, often debilitating physical illness and those that stem from psychological traumas. Her book's dual message—to prioritize self-care AND to allow the ill autonomy and control over themselves and their dreams—plays out against the slow-burn romance between Greer and Alex, while simultaneously exploring the many different interpretations of "luck," the subject of Greer's photography class project.


Mia Hopkins, Thirsty (Eastside Brewery #1)


Romanticized depictions of bikers and gangs abound in Romancelandia. What's far less common are books about the difficulties former gang members experience trying to turn their lives around post-incarceration, especially ones told entirely from the male point of view. Six months out of jail for carjacking and assault, former Los Angeles gang member Sal "Ghost" Rosas has returned to the barrio, working two part-time jobs to earn enough for a decent apartment for him and his brother, who'll soon be out of prison, too. After he gets tossed out of the friend's place where he'd been crashing, a local chismosa (neighborhood gossip) takes pity on him, and offers him a cot in the rundown garage at the back of her house. Only problem: single mom Vanessa, whom Sal remembers from his childhood as one of the kids who didn't take the "gangster track," lives with Chinita, too, and is appalled to have a former gang member camping out in her backyard. Hopkins' work volunteering with a gang intervention and reentry program, and the interviews she conducted with trainees there, clearly informs her gritty, empathetic depiction of both the tight-knit bonds of neighbor and family that pull Sal and Vanessa together and the institutional classism and racism that throws oppressive barriers in the way of their dreams.


Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient

This debut romance featuring a heroine with Asperger's and a sex worker hero has been on almost everyone's best of the year lists, and for good reason. Mathematically gifted but socially awkward econometrician Stella Lane experiences an "ah-ha" moment after a conversation with a rude co-worker: "Maybe sex was just another interpersonal thing she needed to exert extra effort on—like casual conversation, eye contact, and etiquette." And so she comes up with a logical, rational plan: she'll hire an "escort" to teach her how to be better at sex, so she'll be able to not just enjoy the deed, but attract a "regular" man who will stay with her despite her odd ways. But Stella isn't counting on the emotions that often come along with sex—especially sex with a man as kind, and as gorgeous, as Michael Phan. And neither is Michael... Self-acceptance is the underlying message here, not just for Stella but also for Michael, who is burdened with his own insecurities and guilt. But it comes with a healthy helping of kindly laughter, as well as deep insight into the challenges of being an odd duck in a world that would prefer everyone quack to the same beat.



Lola Keeley, The Music and the Mirror

An unusual workplace romance, set against the backdrop of a professional ballet company. Twenty one-year-old white dancer Anna Gale is in awe of everything and everyone at the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center—especially the company's legendary director, Victoria Ford. Victoria's dancing inspired a far younger Anna to devote her own life to ballet, and Anna has long nursed a crush on the greatest ballerina in modern history. Having the chance to work professionally with her idol is almost more than Anna can believe, even if Victoria is more Ice Queen than kindly fairy godmother. But somehow the older white woman finds herself drawn to Anna despite their obvious differences, the girl who looks like the sun but who has a backbone of steel slowly drawing the ice queen into the orbit of her trust and care. Added bonuses: cool gender flipping of ballet roles; the celebration rather than denigration of female ambition; a climax that takes an unusual, but deeply satisfying turn; and a compelling present-tense narration with tons of detail about the world of professional ballet.

Jackie Lau, Not Another Family Wedding

Weddings in the Chin-Williams family always end in disaster. Which is why 36-year-old climatology professor Natalie invites long-time best friend, doctor Connor Douglas, to be her plus-one when she receives the invitation to her baby sister's. Besides, Connor's presence is sure to keep the "when are you getting married/having a baby" comments from well-intentioned family and friends to a minimum, even if they aren't dating. But when the inevitable disaster emotionally derails Natalie mid-reception, Connor's there to distract her from her pain, not just with a friendly smile but with a smoking hot body, and Natalie must make some major reassessments about her formerly platonic friendship. I'm not usually a big fan of category-length romances, but Lau touches upon rarely explored feminist issues of abortion, the desire not to be a parent, and personal choice into this short work, earning it a place on the feminist best of 2018.


Erin MacRae and Racheline Maltese, The Art of Three

In my reading experience, polyamory romances tend to focus more on the erotics than on the emotions, which is why The Art of Three proved such a refreshing read for me. Not only do MacRae and Maltese depict the emotions of 24-year-old burgeoning film star Jamie, fifty-something heartthrob co-star Callum, and Callum's wife, Nerea as they as they attempt to transform Jamie and Callum's on-set fling into something more long-term; they also explore how the trio work to integrate family and friends into their nontraditional relationship with love, kindness, and above all, communication. Developing "the ability to check in on everyone's wants and desires and comforts, asking the uncomfortable but necessary questions" are vital skills not only for those in polyamorous relationships, but also for those more monogamously-inclined.


Ainslie Paton, One Night Wife (The Confidence Game #1)

Paton has secured her place on my list of consistently feminist romance writers with her latest series, which features a family of professional grifters who steal from the 1% to give back to charities the wealthy tend to overlook (i.e., the ones that address the social problems stemming from their own privilege). After a falling-out with his longtime "one night wife," the woman to whom he pretends to be married during his cons, Cal, the eldest Sherwood brother, is looking for a new partner. Sexy charity administrator Finley Cartwright might temporarily fit the bill, especially if he can keep her in the dark about what his con is really about. But can Finley reign in her lust for Cal long enough to keep herself in the game? The thrills of a great con film, married to a strong commitment to social justice and to empowered female characters? Keep those Sherwood books coming!


Penelope Peters, Ben's Bakery and the Hanukkah Miracle

So many Christmas romances abound this time of year that a holiday romance featuring a different religion feels as rare, and as refreshing, as a cool breeze in the desert. Having grown up Jewish in a predominantly Christian town, Ben has recently opened a "kosher-friendly" bakery in greater Boston, hoping to forge a stronger connection to his religious roots. Ben knows that he'll make a lot more money selling Christmas cookies and cakes, but this year he's taking a stand: seven days of Hanukkah-themed baked goods, with nary a fruitcakes or Christmas cookie on offer. When a hot French-Canadian peewee hockey coach visiting for a tournament follows his players into the bakery, Ben's immediately attracted—especially when the man turns out to be the son of a rabbi. But can Adam, who grew up steeped in Judaism, stop condescending to Ben's more flexible interpretation of what it means to be a Jew? Bonus points for nuanced character development and for Adam's pre-teen boy hockey players, who egg on Ben and Adam's burgeoning romance as if homophobic worry had been banished from sports for so long, it had never even crossed their radar.


Roan Parrish, Rend

Parrish appears on RNFF's Best of list for the second year in a row, this time for her portrayal of a marriage floundering on the shoals of secrets and unresolved trauma. After a whirlwind courtship, charity worker Matt Argento and musician Rhys Nyland tied the knot eighteen months ago. Both are deeply in love, and deeply committed to one another, but neither anticipated the effect that Rhys' going on tour would have on Matt, who experienced abandonment after abandonment growing up in New York's foster care system. Even though Matt's rational brain is telling him that Rhys is coming back, his unconscious one sends him deeper and deeper into a morass of emotional doubt. Trying not to ruin Rhys' tour with his own insecurities, Matt keeps his growing inability to cope from his husband, which in turn puts emotional distance in their formerly close relationship. Parrish once again demonstrates her ability to depict characters struggling with mental illness with empathy and deep understanding, as well as the pain, frustration, and love of those who struggle alongside them.

Shamin Sarif, I Can't Think Straight

Jet-setting Christian Palestinian Tala is instantly attracted to shy Indian Muslim Leyla, whose love of family has her stagnating in an accounting job in her family's company rather than attempting the fiction writing she longs to pursue. But Tala is engaged to a kind, progressive man back in Jordan, and her mother will disown her if she backs out of this fourth engagement. And Leyla is almost engaged, too, to an equally eligible Londoner. Not a traditional romance, but an ensemble piece that gives us the points of view of family and friends in each woman's extended circle as well as their own, as they struggle to come to terms not only with a sexuality that neither of their cultures fully accepts or even openly acknowledges, but also with their unexpected attraction to one another.

Victoria Helen Stone, Jane Doe

Stone's latest is less romance and more thriller, but its biting indictment of manipulative male gender privilege makes it a vital addition to this year's "Best of" list. Sociopath Jane schemes to avenge her best friend Meg by taking down Meg's ex, the upstanding son of a minister whose continual gaslighting and verbal abuse led Meg to take her own life. Knowing just what kind of woman appeals most to Steven Hepsworth, Jane dons the mask of shy, insecure, easily controlled girl and performs it for Steven's benefit, even as her inner narrative shows what she really thinks of the bullying Steven. Of course, Steven is instantly smitten, which allows Jane to worm her way into his life, find his weakest spot, and exploit it so that he will "live in misery for years," even while she finds a very different man for real self, a man who is drawn to her for the very things others point to as flaws. A fascinating, on-point inversion of the woman-as-crazy-stalker trope, replacing the misogyny of the male infidelity morality tale with a razor-sharp critique of the misogyny inherent in patriarchy.



What were your favorite feminist romances of 2018?