Friday, January 3, 2014

Romance Novels for Feminists' BEST OF 2013


After posting a rant earlier this year about how publishers and authors are increasingly using the novella as a medium for marketing rather than a format with its own specific aesthetic conventions, I found myself eating my words after reading not just one, but three compelling short romances in 2013:

Laura Florand, Snow-Kissed
Florand has a true gift for penning romances with all the characteristics of gourmet chocolate: rich (emotionally), sweet but subtle, all often underlaid with a surprisingly strong bite of the unexpected. I thoroughly enjoyed all three of the full-length Paris-set romances she published this past year. But my top pick would have to be her novella, Snow-Kissed, which tells of an estranged wife and husband who struggle through their anger, passion, and grief in the wake of a series of devastating miscarriages to somehow find the courage to risk themselves one more time for love.

Ruthie Knox Making It Last
Like Snow-Kissed, Making It Last features a married couple whose relationship is foundering. Not on the shoals of tragedy, but rather on the far more common rocks of everyday life's demands—children, work, lack of time for each other, lack of time for themselves. Tony hopes that gifting his wife with a solo vacation will bring back the Amber with whom he fell in love, but soon recognizes that it's only together, not apart, that the two can confront the frustrations and guilt that have led them to drift apart.

Mary Ann Rivers, Snowfall
Rivers' debut novella, The Story Guy, was the recipient of much attention early this year. But I enjoyed her Christmas story, Snowfall, the middle offering in the Heating up the Holidays collection, even more. The story of a scientist struggling to adjust to a life-changing medical diagnosis while simultaneously trying to choose between the steamy phone-sex guy who allows her to forget about her physical problems or the quirky physical therapist who urges her to confront them head-on features the same luscious prose and emotionally-charged romance of The Story Guy. Disability here is not portrayed at one remove, but as front and center as a complex woman works to negotiate her own changing identity and its implications for her romantic life.


Alexis Hall, Glitterland
Another auspicious debut characterized by razor-sharp language and deeply-imagined characterization, Glitterland relates the story of Ash Winters, former Wunderkind whose potential flamed out in college due to the onset of bipolar disorder. Ash's sexual encounter with working-class Darian sends him fleeing into the night, but Darian's persistence, hope, and good heart gradually inspire Ash to move beyond the confines of his own apartment and the limits he's allowed his illness to place upon his life. A gritty portrayal of mental illness, leavened by a sweet m/m romance.

Tamara Morgan, Confidence Tricks
Romance and robbery combine to humorous and adventurous effect in this tale of a con-woman set on revenge, and the rather inept wealthy family involved in their own series of stings with which she becomes involved. Witty banter, clever heists, hot sex scenes, and two protagonists who grow into their better selves through interacting with each other make for a far deeper read than your typical heist romance.

Molly O'Keefe, Wild Child
The first entry in O'Keefe's new Boys of Bishop initially seems to give us the typical bad girl/good guy romance. But O'Keefe's complex characterization shows how the "bad" and "nice" labels are not only limits that others place upon us, but facades behind which we can hide our more vulnerable selves. How town mayor/nice boy Jackson Davies and former child reality-TV-star Monica Appleby use their own self-images to protect themselves, and how each forces the other to stop hiding, makes for yet another satisfying read by one of today's best contemporary romance authors.


Anne Calhoun, Uncommon Passion
I had a hard time choosing between Calhoun's Unforgiven and Uncommon Passion, but ultimately the latter won out for its far from conventional take on the virgin heroine story. Having recently renounced her fundamentalist religious upbringing, twenty-five-year-old Rachel is eager to explore her own sexuality, and takes the first step by bidding on, and winning, the hottest guy in a bachelor auction. The sexism of the tropes of the typical virgin heroine romance gets blown sky-high in this story of a woman both not afraid to explore her sexuality but also not willing to ignore the emotions that so often form part and parcel of the sex package.

Cara McKenna, Unbound
In a romance field dominated by alpha male protagonists, McKenna proves herself once again one of the best in the field by crafting a sexually-submissive male as romantic lead, and making him far more interesting and appealing than the majority of more "masculine" romance heroes. Scotsman Rob Rush, living the life of a hermit to avoid both the temptation of alcohol and the shame of his rope fetish, meets his match in American Merry Murray, celebrating her hard-earned slimmed-down body with a solo hiking trip in the Highlands. Can a hot vacation tryst turn into something more lasting?

Heloise Belleau and Solace Ames, The Dom Project
A good dom can be so hard to find... University archivist Robin Lessing is known to her readers as "The Picky Submissive," penning humorous blog posts about her up until now disappointing quest to find a partner who will actually listen to her submissive preferences, rather than simply tell her how good submitting to him will be. After discovering long-time best friend John Sun is into the kink, too, Robin enters into a one-month contract, during which John will help her explore her own submissive likes and dislikes—all without sex, of course, so their friendship won't be ruined. This BDSM take on the marriage of convenience plot has the added appeal of an Asian hero, well-aware of how stereotypes about male Asian sexuality play into his own stereotype-busting preferences.


Gayle Forman, Just One Day and Just One Year
It's not just that my daughter is going to be in her school's production of As You Like It this spring that I'm so taken with Forman's paired stories of two young people whose lives resonate with connections to Shakespeare's liminal play. American Allyson and Dutch Willem meet cute in London, then spend one life-changing day together in Paris, neither quite ready for the intensity of the feelings that the other evokes. In classic An Affair to Remember-fashion, a tragic accident separates the two. Each novel recounts the year which follows the separation, one from Allyson's POV, one from Willem's, during which both struggle to craft an adult identity while wondering about, and searching for, the other.

Tom Leveen, Manicpixiedreamgirl
Leveen's narrative, flashing between one day in the current life of junior Tyler Darcy, and the past three years of his romantic life, deftly portrays the gap between public performances of masculinity and privately held beliefs of teen boys, and the implications such a gap has for real-life adolescent girls. What's at stake when a boy turns a girl into his "manicpixiedreamgirl," the girl who embodies all his liberatory dreams and desires? Can a boy move beyond the objectification that the manicpixiedreamgirl entails, to see the actual girl behind the image he's constructed? Especially if that actual girl is far more troubled than the male dreamer has ever imagined?

Bill Koenigsberg, Openly Straight
After years of being out and proud of it, west coast highschooler Rafe transfers to an elite private school in the Northeast, where he decides not to tell anyone about his sexual preferences. Experiencing life as a straight guy has its benefits, no doubt. But how can Rafe tell his best friend that he's really in love with him and still maintain his cover? This wry, humorous, and thoughtful look at homophobia and identity politics in contemporary American culture has much to offer both teens struggling to come to terms with non-traditional aspects of their own identities, as well as the adults around them who take acceptance of such identities for granted.

Katie McGarry, Crash Into You
Young adult melodrama at its drama-i-est, with car crashes, paroled parents, gambling-addicted siblings, and debilitating mental illnesses galore. Yet at its heart lies the story of a couple coming to terms with their needs to control their own lives, and the equally important necessity of allowing those they love to make their own choices. The male desire to protect the woman one loves, so often constructed as a positive force in romance, is here shown to be really more about keeping control for oneself. Learning to accept a loved one's right to control her own life serves as a strong underlying feminist theme.


Cecilia Grant, A Woman Entangled
Two years in a row for Grant on RNFF's "Best of" list, this time for the third book in her Blackshear series. Once again calling into question traditional romance tropes, Grant portrays a woman bent on marrying for money and status, one who does not have to give up her material dreams in order to realize her romantic ones, or to be punished for having such desires in the first place.

Courtney Milan, The Heiress Effect
Another 2-time RNFF "Best of" author, with another historical romance that turns traditional romance tropes on their heads. The ridiculous dress and thoughtlessly insulting comments of "Feather Heiress" Jane Fairfield are driving political mover and shaker Lord Bradenton to distraction, so much so that he promises rising political star Oliver Marshall his support on a key vote if Oliver will help flush Jane Fairfield from polite society. Yet there's more to Jane, and to Oliver, than either Bradenton, or readers, suspect...

Sherry Thomas, The Luckiest Lady in London
A smart homage to Loretta' Chase's classic Lord of Scoundrels, with a hero who responds to the travesty of his parents' disastrous marriage not by turning into a rake, but instead by performing the role of the "perfect gentleman," a role that hides the far more complicated man that lies beneath. But when Felix Rivendell, Marquess of Wrenworth, encounters the one woman who seems to see his darker side, he cannot help but be transfixed, despite his promise to himself never to be a victim of love as was his father before him. How far should we tolerate the current bad behavior of those who experienced difficult childhoods? And how does gender play into the answer of such a question? These are only a few of the feminist questions Thomas asks readers to consider.

Anna Cowan, Untamed
A special RNFF shout-out to the flawed but innovative and ambitious gender-bending historical Untamed. It may not be the most accomplished book of 2013, but it did contain some of the strongest challenges to conventional gender roles of the year.

I find myself at a distressing loss when asked to name the best of 2013 for any of these categories. In part because so many Fantasy and Sci Fi books are published as parts of series, and I'm unwilling to read book #22 before having read #1-21. In part because my years of teaching F & SF make me a particularly tough critic, especially when it comes to the world-building that plays such a vital role in the appeal of these genres. In part because I still find it rare for a romantic suspense novel to successfully reconcile generic conventions that rely on objectifying the female protagonist as object of danger with this blog's desires for female agency and autonomy. Have I overlooked any 2013 feminist gems in these categories?

Which 2013 romances struck you as both outstanding romances, and as worthy exemplars of feminist values? And what would you like to see more of, feminist-romance-wise, in 2014?


  1. I've been enjoying your blog and the commentary for a while. Thankyou!

    I've got an urban fantasy rec for you: Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall. It's f/f written by a man, which is in itself interesting. The hard bitten PI, vampire prince, werewolf leader and head wizard are all women.

    He also plays with the genre in other fun interesting ways. The main reason I'm recommending this book is that it's tremendous fun and a great read, but his fiddling with the genre adds to the enjoyment of the book.

    I don't usually have much time for many male writers, but this is an exception.

    1. Thanks, Des Livres, for the recommendation. It sounds so different from GLITTERLAND -- will be interested to see if Hall's writing skills translate well into the urban fantasy genre.

  2. We have more overlap than any other best of I've seen -- 7 books!

    1. Yes, I was worried you'd think I copied your list! Maybe it's just that smart feminist minds think alike...

  3. Thanks for the list! There are several I've been meaning to read but haven't got around to yet.

    As for m/m, I recommend A.B. Gayle's Leather+Lace for its upending of gender tropes and for its unique resolution of the conflict between a man who doesn't want to return to the world of BDSM after his experience with an abusive dom of an ex and a BDSM practitioner who is otherwise the perfect match for him.

    As for erotic romance, I really liked Delphine Dryden's The of Principle of Desire about a woman who discovers her switchy side. There's another arrogant dom of an ex involved here, but rather than being out-and-out abusive, he's the kind of person who thinks he knows better than his partner and doesn't listen to her, which is something most (if not all) of us can relate to outside of the context of this story.

    1. Thanks, Lawless, for the recs. I've been meaning to read THE PRINCIPLE OF DESIRE for a while now, but I hadn't come across LEATHER+LACE -- sounds interesting!

  4. Thanks for the recommendations, Laura Florand's was new to me, and her prose is lush and lovely.

    1. So glad you liked Florand's work. I agree that her prose is delicious!

  5. I would recommend Playing With Fire by Cassandra Bella. She has a strong female lead that is an FBI agent, it's a great read. Her site is For romantic suspense I would say it's a home run!

  6. I'm not reading much contemporary romance at the moment, but I did read Unbound at your recommendation. It was probably my favorite book of the year and one of the few romances I know I will reread, so thanks much.


  7. Courtney Milan's The Countess Conspiracy was published at the tail-end of the year, so you may not have had time to look at it before this post. But I'd say TCC eclipses The Heiress Effect as feminist romance. It's also part of an interesting recent trend in historicals depicting heroines who have a serious interest in the sciences.

    1. Yes, I'm eagerly waiting for the paperback copy of THE COUNTESS CONSPIRACY I ordered to arrive -- will have to do a post later this year on 2013 books I'm still catching up on.

      What are your favorite woman-as-scientist historicals? Past and present?

  8. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my favourite romances ever. It is part of a series, but stands alone (though reading earlier books would lead to more appreciation I think.) It is science fiction published in 2013.

    I also enjoy Jayne Castle's futuristic romances, and the slow-moving romantic subplot of Neve Maslakovic's time travel mystery The Far Time Incident.

    1. Thanks, Anonymous, for the recs. I'm on the early books in Bujold's series, and have been wary about reading out of order. But perhaps CAPTAIN V would be worth the look...