Top 25 Reads, 1st 6 Months of 2020
Finally, a straightforward one!
In the past few weeks, I have composed many meandering posts for this newsletter in my head, some I actually came close to writing. About how I’ve been at work more this past month and thinking about how my students influence everything I write, how I miss them. About my WIP, which I am getting close to finishing a first draft of, how I’m at that sweet spot where I feel just desperately in love with it (and simultaneously desperately afraid that it is, in fact, Not Actually That Great). About a myriad of other Things That Are Happening.
But after reading a list of reading recommendations from another romance reader & writer that I respect this morning, it reminded me of the reading roundups I used to do on my own various blogs. & goddamn, I have been wanting to shout about some of these books for so long!
2020 has been a million years long in so many ways, but it has been monumental for me in terms of reading. I have read so many of my very favorite books ever this year, even in the midst of so much awfulness. When I looked back at my reading history, I was like, “What? I read Well Met THIS YEAR? Like January of 2020? That can’t be right!!” In any case, these books have been my brightest spots of these long, intense six months.
I’m listing identity information about authors in as much as I know them; these lists are always a good reminder for me to examine my reading habits and how I can diversify them. While there are definitely some Black and brown authors here, and I never have trouble reading queer work, this list is still overwhelmingly white and cis, and I’d like to do better. If I have any identities below listed incorrectly, please let me know.
(And sorry in advance that some of these images are huge and some are not? I’m too lazy to be professional-level here. And by the time I reached the end of rambling about 25 whole books, Substack alerted me that this is officially too long for your Gmails. Which is definitely some kind of achievement unlocked. If you actually open this entire dumb email in a new tab, well, god bless you.)
Okay! These are in no particular order (seriously)! Let’s get our hearts beat up by love!!
Love from A to Z, S.K. Ali
YA Contemporary; 2019 (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster); Indian-Canadian Muslim female author
I read the award winning Saints and Misfits a couple years back and enjoyed it, but it was one of those books that I knew objectively was beautifully written but I personally had a harder time getting into than I wanted, likely because it deals with themes of sexual assault (among other things), which is often hard for me. Did I get wrapped up into Love from A to Z so much faster because there’s a much stronger romantic element with a totally swoon worthy hero? Probably! Listen, I know who I am, okay?!
Along with the swoon worthy romance (they connect with the same piece of art, influencing their life philosophies, years before they meet each other *sob*), this one also deals with so much: MS, loss of family members/grief, drone strikes, Islamophobia. And Ali’s talent with words is just incredible. Ali’s female MCs in both of her books so far are so fiercely angry and I respect that so much. This book also takes place in Doha, Qatar, a setting I don’t think I’ve ever read in fiction before.
He’s Come Undone: A Romance Anthology, Emma Barry, Olivia Dade, Adriana Herrera, Ruby Lang, & Cat Sebastian
Adult (mostly contemporary, one historical) romance; 2020 (self published); many author identities, including Latinx, Asian-American, and bisexual, all female
When I saw this anthology announced on Twitter, I SCREAMED?! And then the whole thing was EVEN BETTER THAN I DREAMED?!
This is a group of novellas by a group of top-notch romance authors all centered around the beloved trope of a buttoned-up man getting totally effed up by love. Of the five authors, the only ones I hadn’t actually read before were Emma Barry and Olivia Dade, and I so loved getting my first tastes of their work here. From a writing perspective, I so, so admire these writers’ ability to pack so much character development and story arcs into these novellas; like, how?! I consumed this anthology slowly like a fine wine, and I loved how different each story was, as well. The characters ranged from piano virtuosos to murder diorama artists to professional baseball players to middle aged women having to move back home to take care of ill parents to sad teachers in 1970s New England private schools and phew! I wanted to hug each and every one of them!!!
The Prince of Broadway, Joanna Shupe
Adult Historical Romance [Gilded Age, NYC]; 2019 (Avon); white female author
This is the second in Shupe’s Uptown Girls series, and I really enjoyed the first installment, The Rogue of Fifth Avenue, last year, but THIS ONE! Holy shiiiit. First off, this has one of the hottest sex scenes I’ve read (yeah, the mutual masturbation in the brothel one), and it happens relatively early on, too, so this book was already a W I N N E R for me lolol but seriously, this is one of the most fiercely feminist historical romances I’ve ever read. Even with a real alpha hero, Florence—an uptown girl who is determined to open her own illegal lady run casino for ladies only—meets him beat for beat. Just two alphas really alpha-ing it up in here. This also has the best ending I have ever read in a historical, or really any romance ever. Just thinking about it makes me so very very happy.
What I Like About You, Marisa Kanter
YA Contemporary Romance; 2020 (Simon & Schuster); white Jewish female author
This book is the epitome of adorable, and also really niche nerdy, as the MC is a book blogger/influencer whose ultimate goal is attending Book Con. As a book nerd I enjoyed this aspect, although I did think some teens who aren’t as attuned to the world of publishing might be like “WTF is going on” for some of it, lol. BUT that’s okay because the relationships and character development are the real universal story here. I am such a sucker for this You’ve Got Mail-esque trope, where one of the protagonists keeps her online identity secret as she gets to know her online best friend IRL, unbeknownst to the best friend. It’s just…such a good trope, for so many reasons!
I also enjoyed this for the fact that the characters rang as true to me in terms of being teens. So many YA books these days have their characters going through such dark, adult-level emotions, and believe me, I am not saying that those emotions and experiences aren’t legit, because they are. Seriously, I love your dark YA. But also, like…some teens are just nerds. And while both characters in this book do in fact have older-than-their-years worries (the MC is literally running a full time business at the same time that she’s trying to survive as a high school student), I enjoy that they also like, stressing about AP tests. And a lot of the scenes—the bowling alley traditions, the hangouts in friends’ basements—really felt like genuine high school to me.
A Night to Surrender, Tessa Dare
Adult Historical Romance [Regency England]; 2011 (Avon); white female author
In my self-directed Introduction to Romance education, there were three authors who were truly instructive to me: Alyssa Cole, Cat Sebastian, and Tessa Dare. I want to write more extensively about each of those authors at some point, but when I was really, frankly, feeling like shit a few weeks ago, I realized how long it had been since I’d read a Tessa Dare. I flew through her most recent Girl Meets Duke series first, and then went back and devoured her Castles Ever After series, but that was all last year. So a few weeks ago, I prescribed myself with a Dare for my mental health, and oh man, it was the right choice. This is the first book in her Spindle Cove series and I forgot just…how happy her books make me? That sounds so simple but it’s so true and important. Dare is funny, and romantic, but all of her premises are always so genius and FUN and PERFECT. Like Spindle Cove, a lovely seaside village in the British countryside that is ruled by women who either don’t fit in with regular society or need to recover from society’s traumas. I want to go to a seaside British village run by ladies!! Tessa Dare also frequently writes about disability. One of my favorite heroes ever of hers is the blind duke from Romancing the Duke; I similarly enjoyed the injured military man who gets wrecked by Spindle Cove here.
The Chocolate Thief, Laura Florand
Adult Contemporary Romance; 2011 (Kensington); white female author
This is one of those books that I likely never would have picked up on my own (the cover, eh), except that it was recommended by Charlotte, one of my Twitter mutuals that I trust about everything, during the #RomBkLove Twitter event in May. And I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this story about an heiress to a Hershey-esque American chocolate empire who goes to Paris to woo the finest chocolatier in the land into a business deal. When the chocolatier says nah (obviously), she takes to spying on him and his kitchen, and I sort of love how obsessed this woman is? Like…she is seriously out of her mind about chocolate, y’all. Like, she should probably calm down, honestly, but she doesn’t, and I love that the hero, when he finds out how obsessed she is, is just…turned on by it?? lol romance is the best. Anyhoo, in addition to the delight of reading a book that’s literally entirely about chocolate, there is a particularly hot scene where they somehow bang while walking up stairs, which was rather remarkable. My only complaint, actually, is that I wanted much more banging after this scene and it didn’t happen, which was probably an editorial decision, but it’s FINE I guess.
The Roommate, Rosie Danan
Adult Contemporary Romance; to be published September 2020 (Berkley); white Jewish bisexual female author
Since I was just talking about banging, feels natural to talk about The Roommate next! Which is the only book on this list that isn’t out yet, so you should pre-order it! Disclaimer: I know her!! So I am biased. But the setup of this one is just, ugh, perfect. An uptight socialite from Connecticut moves to LA to be roomies with her lifelong crush, or at least that’s what she thinks. But SURPRISE when she gets there the crush says oops, sorry forgot to tell you, I’m going on tour with my band now, but don’t worry!! I got some other dude to lease my room. And that other dude is totally a porn star! Our heroine is shocked, and…intrigued. This book is so smart and sex-positive and good and hot, and I loved learning more about the porn/sex worker industry. I love Josh and Clara so much, and it’s so fun watching other people start to read and love this as it gets closer to publication.
Pansies, Alexis Hall
Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published); white gay male author
I’m now wondering if my previous list of Alyssa and Cat and Tessa being my most instructive romance authors was wrong, and if Alexis Hall should be added to that list. Being that I am absolutely, completely, stupidly obsessed with Alexis Hall. Yes, okay, I’m doing it! My list is now Alyssa, Cat, Tessa, and Alexis Hall. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
I read all of the Spires stories this year (even though that, again, doesn’t feel real, I have definitely been reading them for like a decade at least) and I’m going to mention two of the other ones on this list too in a bit, but Pansies is the last of the series, the most recent one I read, and it just really hit me in the feels. I think because it takes place in a small town. The MC is a guy who used to be a bully back in high school, a big man around town who was similarly successful when he moved to London and made a lot of money but…still doesn’t really feel comfortable being an out gay man, still doesn’t really know who he is, and coming back to his small town, where he falls in love with this total messy disaster who’s trying to keep his dead mother’s flower shop alive while drowning in grief, this guy whom the MC used to bully in high school, it brings the MC to his knees basically. I mean, everyone in the Spires books are brought to their knees by feelings, which is why I love them so much. But queer small town feels are A Lot for me, and this book…yeah.
Well Met, Jen DeLuca
Adult Contemporary Romance; 2019 (Berkley); white female author
This was such a perfect comfort read for me. I think a book like this translates to comfort read when the world building is done really well. And in addition to the romance in this Renaissance Faire rom-com being just so good, I really felt like I was inside that Renaissance Faire, like I could live in the fictional small town of Willow Creek, and like I could go back there again and again. I mean, when we weren’t at the Ren Faire, we were in a bookstore! Loved it, and can’t wait for the sequel later this year.
When Dimple Met Rishi, Sandhya Menon
YA Contemporary Romance; 2017 (Simon & Schuster); Indian-American female author
This book brought me out of a major YA reading slump, which I am so grateful for! I’d been meaning to read Menon’s Bollywood-inspired rom-coms ever since this came out (and I now can’t wait to read all of her others), and I fell for both Dimple and Rishi, who meet at a coding camp for teens in the Bay Area (after their parents have already arranged for them to date and hopefully marry), so hard. This was one of those YA romances that also felt genuinely sexy to me [which I think is fair to say not in a creepy way but in a way that acknowledges that teens can have sex lives], where their relationship felt hard won and real and I was just dying for them to get their HEA, and then the HEA was so perfectly over-the-top romantic. This also includes a couple fantastic scenes where you get to see brown teens just really hand white kids their dumb arrogant asses. SWOON.
Get a Life, Chloe Brown, Talia Hibbert
Adult Contemporary Romance; 2019 (Avon); Black British female author
Talia Hibbert wrote one of my absolute favorite reads of last year (Work for It) and this one got so much great good hype that I knew I would love it, and yup, I really did!! This is another trope that I’m always into—the MC makes a list of Things To Do to Feel Alive! after living a relatively sheltered life. I will always love a list! She’s rich and successful at her job, but also suffers from chronic pain due to fibromyalgia, which causes her to rarely leave her apartment. She’s also fat and hot, which I love too. Also hot: Red (ugh, such a good hero nickname), the super of her apartment building who is hiding himself from his impressive art career. There are so many hijinks and sexy bits and a cat named Smudge. I am currently (im)patiently watching for its sequel to arrive at my house from Powell’s.
A Charm of Magpies series, KJ Charles
Adult Paranormal Queer Romance (m/m); 2017 (self-published); white female author
I am counting all three of these books as one because I read them all in a row in the space of like, a week, which was omg so fun! These books are also ~spooky~ which, as the world’s biggest scaredy cat, always makes me feel proud of myself! Seriously though, these books are different from most of the books I read (as this list shows), all nonstop action and suspense and I couldn’t tear myself away from them. These two dummies almost die for each other like a gajillion times and there are sex-fueled tattoos and I loved every second of it.
Flowers from the Storm, Laura Kinsale
Adult Historical Romance [Regency (I think?) England]; 1992 (Avon); white female author
This is one of those old school romances I’d been hearing about since joining the romance community, and I am so pleased to learn that the reason everyone loves Kinsale is because Kinsale is bananapants. Just non-stop, over the top drama. The first half of this book takes place in a mental institution, because the Duke of Jervaulx has suffered some type of affliction that’s never named but I assume was some type of stroke. It’s left him essentially mute, which obviously back in the day equaled insane, and his awful family ships him off to the institution and proceeds to attempt to steal all of his wealth and power. The woman who ends up being his nurse (basically) is of course the only person who believes he’s perfectly sane, and while she tries to fight for his salvation, she is also a Quaker who disagrees with everything the Duke stands for? Like, hardcore Quaker drama in here, which I was! not! expecting! I also wasn’t expecting a mental institution, but these are the joys when you jump into an old school romance that you knew absolutely nothing about beforehand!
Something to Talk About, Meryl Wilsner
Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (f/f); 2020 (Berkley); white non-binary bisexual author
You’ll note that there are a ton of m/m romances on this list but this is the only f/f, and there's a lot to unpack there both concerning myself and the publishing industry, but right now let’s blame it on the publishing industry because that’s easier! f/f is simply not published NEARLY as much as m/m. (Malindo Lo has a lot of good essays about why.) You typically have to find queer small publishers to find f/f romance, at least until Something to Talk About! Whooo. Disclaimer: I know them and so I am biased!! But once I sat down and opened this slow-burn Hollywood-set romance between a lesbian show runner and her bisexual assistant, I couldn’t stop, and finished it within a day. It’s compulsively readable and charming and comforting. There are so many great side characters in here too, like Emma’s fat sister who runs a bakery. My favorite scene in the book is probably when Emma, the assistant, has an asthma attack when they’re on their way to a shoot, and Jo, the show runner who is previously Miss Professional At All Times, loses her shit (at least, for Jo), and ugh! When someone who doesn’t realize they’re in love with the other person yet sees that person get hurt or be vulnerable in any way and they get so disproportionately protective! *weeping face* Pump it into my veins!
Invitation to the Blues, Roan Parrish
Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published); white queer female author
This is the sequel to Small Change, which I also read this year and really loved, but Invitation to the Blues has stuck with me so hard for so many different reasons. I do hate this cover, though, because Jude’s red hair is LONG; it is mentioned so many times, Faron plays with it and braids it all the time so why is it short on the cover, I hate it. BUT I love everything else about this book. I love, first of all, that this book takes place in Philly! And both Jude and Faron are such interesting, memorable characters, and their chemistry is just…fantastic. Jude, whom we meet in the first book, is a musician who’s struggling with mental health after a suicide attempt, and the way Parrish describes depression here, and importantly, how Faron loves him—neither as a burden, nor as a problem to be “solved”—is so, so good. I think about this book so often even though it’s been months since I read it.
Love Lettering, Kate Clayborn
Adult Contemporary Romance; 2019 (Kensington); white female author
Clayborn is such a master of words in general, but what I think is so compelling about her is that her books feel both quiet and action-packed all at once, which is especially true of Love Lettering. She is so good at describing all the little details of a life, so that you feel like you know these people, inside and out, and it makes all the emotion packed into even the small actions in the pages so…intense, but in such a quietly realistic way. I absolutely loved the premise of the love story in here—a lettering artist who tries to both fall in love with her own art again and get a small-town man to fall in love with New York City by taking walking tours of the city’s best hand-lettered signs. This is already like, so up my alley that I am 100% there, but there is also a fantastic female friendship subplot that felt so realistically painful and important to me, and then, like, WHOA there is exciting stuff that I didn’t see coming at all. This book is lovely, through and through.
The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, Ben Philippe
YA Contemporary; 2019 (HarperTeen); Black male author
This book is about a Haitian-French-Canadian kid who moves to Austin, Texas for his mom’s new job. He chronicles his Canada-to-Texas culture shock in his journal, framed by all the American high school tropes he’s seen in movies. Norris is such a caustically funny character that I both loved him and hated him, you know? (He is also so voicey that I frequently wondered if this should have been written in 1st person instead of 3rd, but I eventually got used to it.) But heart eventually shines through all of the self-deprecating humor. I love both Madison and Liam, two people Norris never would have expected himself to become friends with; they are both such great characters. And what I actually love about this book is that Norris is actually like…called on his shit. Or rather, he has to own up to the fact that his sarcastic, whipsmart attitude might be hilarious but also hurts people. Which, as a lover of HEAs, I simultaneously hate, because being called on his shit means that he doesn’t necessarily get an HEA. But it is arguably an HFN (happy-for-now), which is really probably the only honest ending for a YA. (Even though I still want the HEAs anyway, obviously.)
Heated Rivalry, Rachel Reid
Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2019 (Carina Press); white female author
This book. All banging. All angst. All the time. This is the best enemies to lovers romance I will ever read, THAT’S IT, NO QUESTIONS. This is the second book in Reid’s Game Changers series, and like A Charm of Magpies, I consumed all of them within a week, and honestly loved all of them and can’t wait until the fourth comes out in the fall. But I will never get enough of Shane and Ilya, their HEA is the best, I want to read this book again and again, the grilled cheese and the lake house and all of it, UGH. I love this book and the rest of us out there who love it, collectively. I’m so glad we have this small joy in our lives together.
A Duke in Disguise, Cat Sebastian
Adult Historical Queer Romance (f/m) [Regency England]; 2019 (Avon); white bisexual female author
I caught up on Sebastian’s Regency Imposters series this year by reading both this and A Delicate Deception and really loved them both and had a hard time deciding which to feature here. So, whatever, just imagine I’m featuring both because I’m obviously going to talk about them both. It was interesting because both are super different—A Duke in Disguise is more action packed, about political activists in the city trying to break down the system (the system which one of them, of course, discovers he is unwittingly a part of), while A Delicate Deception is much more quiet, about two anxious people being anxious together in the country. I have to note that I’ve seen a few people on Amazon/Goodreads describe these books as the first straight ones Sebastian has written, and like I KNOW one should never read Amazon/Goodreads reviews, but just to be clear! These books are still hella queer! Like literally everyone in A Delicate Deception is queer, and I love how the heroine in A Duke in Disguise has only ever slept with women before so she’s like “huh, being attracted to a man, interesting, I mean I guess I’ll try it” or at least that’s how I pictured her thoughts in my own head. Anyway, bad people die, queer people get to live the lives they want, I love Cat Sebastian. (And no, I have not read Two Rogues Make a Right yet and I can barely stand it.)
For Real, Alexis Hall
Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published); white gay male author
I swear, no kink shame here, but I have never been able to get into a BDSM story before For Real. It just hasn’t been for me, and I think it’s because the power dynamics in the few I’ve tried before have made me uneasy. But For Real portrays a power dynamic that feels equal (even more impressive considering this is also a love story between an older and a much younger man) and that really gets to the emotions behind the dominance and the submission. It just felt…beautiful, and hot, and made sense to me, and have I mentioned I love Alexis Hall.
The Worst Best Man, Mia Sosa
Adult Contemporary Romance; 2020 (Avon); Black Latinx female author
This is one of those rom-coms that is just so fun along with being steamy and sweet and interesting. The set-up of this one is great, wherein a Brazilian-American wedding planner trying to grow her business has to work with her ex-fiancee’s brother (the ex-fiancee who broke up with her the night before their wedding years earlier) on a business deal. Watching them fall for each other was so hilarious and satisfying; you really wanted both of them to win their end of the bargain! The whole sequence where they get roped into the couples’ retreat, from being trapped in those big plastic balls to the sexy sexy car scene the next morning, is one of the most memorable parts of a book I’ve read this year.
Hurricane Season, Nicole Melleby
Middle Grade Contemporary; 2019 (Algonquin); white queer female author
This is the only middle grade book on this list, which is interesting to me. I have been reading some middle grade (although I should be reading more), but this is the only one that really stuck in my heart this year, even though middle grade is often so easy to get stuck in my heart. Hurricane Season is about a girl with a mentally ill father, who becomes obsessed with Vincent Van Gogh because she thinks if she can understand Vincent, maybe she can understand her dad, and she can help him be better, so that CPS doesn’t take her away from him. It’s an all around gut wrencher that also has really lovely LGBT themes.
Wicked and the Wallflower, Sarah MacLean
Adult Historical Romance [Regency England]; 2018 (Avon); white female author
Sarah MacLean is one of those romance powerhouses that I had never read before, and now that I’ve finally read one, I get it! I have to admit it took me a little while to get into this one, because I felt like there was a lot of repetitive stuff at the beginning. BUT once the action really got going! Phew! I couldn’t stop reading, and I can’t wait to read the rest in this series. I also loved how the trajectory in this one (similar to The Prince of Broadway) was the opposite of what you read in many Regency era historicals, where women from lower classes accidentally land themselves a duke. Here, the MC does want to land a duke at the beginning, to be clear, BUT then is like, “What if I just want to lead a life of crime instead??” An obvious superior choice!
Glitterland, Alexis Hall
Adult Contemporary Queer Romance (m/m); 2018 (self-published); white gay male author
Glitterland was my first Alexis Hall and I still heart it so much. I’m including all the Spires stories here separately (& I should note that I did also read and love Waiting for the Flood but it didn’t affect me as much as the other three) because they are all so different, at the same time that they do have a similar feel. And that feel is feelings, lolz. What I remember loving so much about this one, an opposites attract story between a very depressed man and a literally glittery man, is how well Hall captures depression and mental illness (similar to Invitation to the Blues). But when I look back through some of my favorite quotes from this book, I forget how funny Hall is, too? Like, laugh out loud funny, and yes, I am dying to read his upcoming rom-com, I can barely even talk about it. But something else that’s captured in Glitterland and the other Spires stories that I appreciate too is the messiness of queer friendships sometimes, friendships that can meld into romantic or sexual relationships and back again, and it’s a particularly queer thing that only queer authors like Hall can truly get. These books are, in general, full of messy mess while still being so beautiful, and that is such a gift.
The Undefeated, Kwame Alexander & Kadir Nelson
Picture Book; 2019 (Versify); Black male author & illustrator
One day earlier this spring, back when we could still go into our jobs every day, I spent my morning reading through a bunch of picture books I had purchased for my middle school library and crying. There were probably better ways I could have been spending my work time, but also, probably not.
There are so many beautiful picture books out there these days, but this one is put together by two absolute powerhouses of kid lit and it is, in my opinion, one of those essential books that every child in this country needs to have available either in their home or their schools. Kadir Nelson is the illustrator of this New Yorker cover that has gotten a lot of traction lately, along with many other covers and many other remarkable books. His work is absolutely stunning, and having it overlaid with Alexander’s strong, joyous verse is impactful to your core.
In conclusion! Books are great.
See you with 25 more (probably) at the end of 2020. (If, presumably, this year does ever end.)