Yes, my friends, I have become a romance reader. (Y’all should have seen this coming given my passionate love for the X-Men, which is basically a soap opera. With people shooting lasers out of their eyes.) So here’s my first romance novel post: a roundup of 10 contemporary romance novels that I wholeheartedly recommend. Only one book here has the classic romance protagonists of straight white cis etc. man + woman. Everything else is diverse in at least one way.
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Am I putting an “aromantic comedy” in a post about romance novels? Yes! Defore chose to publish with an LGBTQ romance publisher, so I’m thinking she’d be okay with me recommending her book here – and trust me, this has all the feelings and story beats a romance reader is looking for.
The Trouble is an entertaining new adult opposites attract / rock star story about the relationship between two Korean-American college students: Danny Kim, an exuberant aromantic singer poised to level up in his music career, and Jiyoon Lee, a serious accounting major. They meet when Danny insults Jiyoon’s boyfriend as a way of hitting on him, resulting in a slap and a drink thrown in his face. (I could have lived without the slap.) It gets worse when Danny discovers Jiyoon is the TA for Danny’s accounting class. They do overcome Danny’s jackassery and Jiyoon’s scorn, ending up with a strong connection based on friendship and sexual attraction. However, Danny’s impulsivity and desire for fame don’t mesh with Jiyoon’s well planned future goals, so problems arise.
Love the diversity in this book! The entire cast of major characters is Asian-American, and the main couple aren’t the only queer characters. Danny’s aromanticism is only a problem insofar as people he was interested in have reacted badly before, so he worries that Jiyoon won’t accept him as a partner. Jiyoon is clearly falling for Danny romantically, but after logically analyzing the situation, concludes that Danny is offering him everything he wants in a relationship even if those feelings aren’t exactly reciprocated. (There’s a spreadsheet involved. I heart this guy.)
I also loved watching Danny and Jiyoon slowly getting to know each other, each revealing pieces of themselves to move them from their first impressions to mutual admiration. There’s a lot of cramming for tests and rock concerts here, but also a lot of quiet and sweet moments. Neither guy trades in his personality, but they find a middle ground.
Diversity note: Daria Defore is aromantic.
The Gentlemen’s Rentboy Service is a series of interconnected novellas, four out so far. The format is a little unusual, which each novella being the first installment of a story about a different young man working as a prostitutes for the same high-end service.
In the first story, Shane, a business student paying for college, is sent to a dorm room at a more prestigious college. It’s mostly about the menage sex that ensues… yet by the end of it, both Shane and the geeky, grumpy Brandon have some kind of connection that may go beyond the one night.
Wayne, an indie punk rocker, gets the second book, where he’s sent to wealthy silver fox Kevin. All Wayne was hoping for was enough money to keep his band on the road, but he doesn’t expect his instant attraction to Kevin or not being able to put the guy out of his mind afterwards.
The third book is about bubbly, generous Marti being sent as a gag gift to the office of panicking businessman Victor, whose brother is trying to destroy his company. Marti’s mission in life is to make others happy, so he wrangles a solution to the business problem (with a cameo by Shane) before also, you know, relieving Victor’s personal stress. Job well done!
In the fourth book, former street prostitute Peter is sent to Elias, a billionaire who seems to want a… date? Like, dinner and talking and watching a movie on the couch and stuff? Peter is confused and skittish, struggling with what the Gentleman wants him to learn from his first job with this gentle, gorgeous client, and his emotional arc in this one is just gorgeous.
I’m delighted by how Luxe starts her stories with a sex-based plot, but then takes them to a different emotional place. This is true within each novella, but also a progression across the four, from the lightness of Shane’s sexy spark with Brandon to the emotional depth of Peter’s personal revelation from his date with Elias. Luxe hasn’t told the same story twice in the novellas I’ve read; each set of characters gets their own unique personalities and arcs.
I’m anxious that she won’t keep going, because each of the books in this series is clearly just the beginning of the characters’ story. Signing up on her mailing list got me a free bonus after-story for Wayne’s novella that clearly points to there being a next installment in his story, so I’m hopeful.
The author says her wife has termed her books “so-ro” meaning romance with a social conscience, and that’s quite true in this F/F love story combined with a harsh look at small town prejudice and the dysfunction of the criminal justice system. To a progressive policy geek like myself, it was a perfect blend of personal and political, and I may never have rooted harder for a couple in a romance novel to get their happy ending.
Kristen Brock, who always thought she was straight, manages to get hired as Assistant District Attorney in a small town after her dreams of success at a big firm ended. She ends up rooming with Marydale Rae, not knowing that Marydale is a lesbian and on parole after spending six years in prison for a murder conviction. Kristen finds herself increasingly attracted to Marydale, who returns Kristen’s feelings, but the fallout from Marydale’s conviction (by a small town justice system drenched in homophobia and corruption) repeatedly sabotages their relationship until Kristen decides her fancy law degree isn’t much good unless she uses it to fight for the woman she loves.
It’s often a fairly bleak book, especially with Stetz-Waters’s restrained writing style, but the moments of such tender and deep emotion between Kristen and Marydale get you through. These two characters need each other SO badly, and they both grow into themselves so well during the course of the book. When the forces of justice finally gear up to tackle the forces of evil that have been ruining Marydale’s life for so long, it’s profoundly satisfying. Especially when the anarchist publishing collective rolls up, because you know those people mean business. ;)
One word of caution, though: there are several instances where bisexuality is mentioned and I wish I knew what the author’s thought process was. For example, when Marydale and Kristen kiss for the first time, “warnings” go off in Kristen’s mind: “Roommate. Small town. Bisexual.” Are we making the category of reasons why their hookup is possibly a bad idea, and “bisexual” is Kristen’s (mistaken) belief about Marydale? The other instances include a seemingly-author-endorsed character saying that unlike a lesbian, a bisexual woman can just choose a man if it’s too difficult to date women, and Kristen rejecting the bisexual label by saying she’s just attracted to Marydale. I’m inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt, but I wouldn’t call this the most bi-friendly queer romance ever written.
Content warning: One character’s backstory has an attempted sexual assault, and I’m pretty sure there’s an on-page verbal threat of same from some jackass walking down the street.
An age gap polyamorous celebrity romance between two bisexual men and a woman. Famous British actor Callum Griffith-Davies and Spanish artist Nerea Espinosa de Los Monteros Nessim have had an open marriage for almost thirty years and raised three daughters to adulthood. When Callum meets 24 year old Irish actor Jamie Conway on a movie set, there’s an attraction, but both Callum and Jamie assume they’ll just have a fling. They quickly realize it’s not just a fling. Then Nerea comes to London and falls into a mutual crush with Jamie as well.
If you’ve never read a polyamorous romance, this is a great one to start with. Their tagline for it is perfect: “Two men. One woman. No love triangles. Who says you only get one happily ever after?”
Maltese and McRae are experienced at writing multiple characters grappling with attractions and New Relationship Energy (with both other people and with jobs), and they bring their A game to this book. Conversations around consent and logistics reflect the specific personalities of whichever characters are having them, rather than sounding like passages from Polyamory 101. (Though Jamie does buy a book on the subject, to much merriment from Callum and Nerea.) The sex is all off-page, but I didn’t feel like I’d been cut out of some of the emotional process of the characters, because the discussions, negotations, and genuine emotional moments between the characters are so rich and in-depth. The connection between these three isn’t without bumps and snags, but the arc of the book is towards more caring, more understanding, and more compassion.
Diversity note: Erin McRae is queer. Racheline Maltese is nonbinary and genderqueer, and uses she/her pronouns
Of all the romance novels I’ve read, this one best qualifies for the title “beach read,” and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a passionate romance between two contestants on a dance competition reality show. Stone Nielsen is an improbably tall (see note below) star of an Alaskan outdoorsy reality show. Gina Morales a Puerto Rican professional dancer who will be his partner and dance teacher for his guest stint on The Dance Off.
If you’re looking for something lightweight and entertaining, this is a good pick, and Puerto Rican author Alexis Daria is one to watch going forward. There aren’t any surprises here, and the characterization can be a little thin (why did Stone give up his whole life for his family’s show?), but I had fun reading the book. Gina and Stone have serious chemistry, and their dance lessons and performances were vivid and enjoyable. Gina’s conflicts over avoiding the “sexy Latina” stereotype were real, and I loved watching her succeed professionally in ways that were deeply meaningful to her.
(NOTE: Stone is 6’7″, holy crow! Gina is 5’6″. The author makes a point early on about how it can be tough to choreograph for such a height difference, then seems to ignore Stone’s height for the rest of the book. Every time a new character walks into the room with Stone, they should be like DAMN YOU’RE TALL! And the couple shouldn’t be able to accidentally kiss so easily with all of their feet on the ground. Her head comes up to his shoulder!)
Dead Ringer by Heidi Belleau and Sam Schooler (as of 4/23/18, temporarily out of print due to publisher misbehavior / Goodreads)
A seriously emotional new adult romance between two young men, with the most transformative character arcs I’ve possibly ever seen in a romance novel.
Brandon Ringer, 19, looks almost exactly like his late grandfather, famous actor James Ringer, who died at age 21. (Think James Dean.) Broke, he joins an escort agency that supplies celebrity look-alikes. Percy Charles, 21, is a wealthy James Ringer superfan who lives in his parents’ home, socially isolated due to how his family handles his significant medical needs from juvenile idiopathic arthritis (spoiler = by treating him like a child, and sometimes abusively).
The characters don’t even meet until 30% of the way through the book, because Belleau and Schooler spend so much time establishing the characters in rich detail and starting their journeys. Brandon, grieving, insecure, and resentful, gets his first taste of wanting to do well at a job and having colleagues who actually care about him. Percy, frustrated with his isolation, connects with his first real friend and takes her encouragement to start rebelling against his parents and hired caregiver.
By the time Percy hires Brandon, hoping to meet someone who loves James Ringer as much as he does, it’s clear they each have something important to give the other. But yay, their growing relationship supports the work they’re already doing rather than acting as a magic wand to fix everything. Their (awesome!) friends become even more important, too, which I loved, because both of these guys have been lonely too long! As a final treat, Brandon and Percy also uncover some Ringer family secrets that help Brandon start healing.
This can be a tough read, including assault during sex work, abuse by a caregiver, slurs, blackmail, and plenty of not-yet-healed scars from Brandon’s homophobic parents.
If you don’t need to skip it for those reasons, though, it’s SO worth reading! Cute boys, classic films, queer history, friends who’ll break you out of jail, sex work positivity, and figuring out who you want to be.
Diversity Note: Heidi Belleau is bi. Sam Schooler is trans (using they/them pronouns), bi, and ace.
A lovely, gentle, friends-to-lovers surfing romance that happens within a found/created family. It’s a really quiet book at times, striking and different from many other romance novels I’ve read.
Ollie Birkstrum is a gifted surfer on his last chance to go pro after an injury. Tai Talagi is his gay best friend. They’re both part of a group of roommates that has become a family over the years. When Ollie needs Tai’s continued coaching (and social support, see diversity note below) to make his comeback, Tai puts his life on hold to travel with Ollie. Ollie finds himself wanting more than friendship with Tai, though he’s rarely or never experienced sexual attraction before. (I and some other readers interpret Ollie as demisexual or something similar.) This new development is hella awkward for Tai, who’s devoted like 20% of his waking energy for years to suppressing his crush on Ollie.
The “we’ll just have sex while we’re on the road” decision causes some significant complications, the resolving of which require more honesty than either is used to, and quite frankly they’re both kind of terrible at it. Even when they’re hurting each other, though, it’s within such a context of caring that you’re confident they’re going to work it out. At the end, after watching facet after facet of Tai and Ollie’s lives change and then click together, I had such a feeling of peace.
Diversity notes: (1) Tai is Samoan. To me, Ollie read as either on the autism spectrum or with social anxiety, but it’s never labeled explicitly. (2) Pene Henson is a queer woman.
Thank you, Con Riley, for this lovely bisexual revelation romance that avoids all the garbage often packaged in the gay-for-you trope.
True Brit is a fake relationship romance between two rivals on a televised singing competition called BritPop! Pasha Trueman is an extroverted half-Afghani Brit who quit his call center job for the show. Ed Britten is a stoic former British soldier who served in Afghanistan, so the show managers plan to set them up as enemies or boot them from the show.
Pasha convinces Ed that faking a romantic attraction is the best sabotage of that stupid plan. It goes wild on social media under the #TrueBrit hashtag. Pasha (who’s always thought he was straight but doesn’t deny media rumors he’s gay) and Ed (who’s gay but never says it outright) fall into day-to-day affection quite easily. Their stunt pisses off the show managers, though, so Ed and Pasha have to continually outsmart various attempts to undermine them.
This book is a triumph of showing rather than telling. Riley spends almost zero time inside either character’s head having them bang on about “OMG how could I be having these feelings? This was just supposed to be for the contest!” or in Pasha’s case “How could I be attracted to a man?” Their relationship evolves and is shown through actions, growing from loyalty and friendship rather than immediate sexual/romantic sparks or big schmoopy speeches. Yet this book has some of the sweetest moments, and I was 100% swept away by the romance. Ed and Pasha together once they fess up to each other is possibly the best-est thing ever. (For anyone who’s read it, “Ask me the same as your Dominic did” just about killed me dead.)
I was also delighted by how Riley lets Pasha readjust his view of his sexual orientation with a minimum of fuss. He doesn’t thrash around trying to deny his feelings for Ed, just takes the new puzzle piece and maneuvers it around a bit so it fits. In real life, it’s often more difficult than that, but it was so refreshing to read a bi revelation that was gentle and friendly, honoring that Pasha truly is bi, instead of having him agonize or retconning his past with women because Ed is his destiny.
There are some rough spots in the writing that I wish an editor had smoothed out. I’ve read the first scene at least three times, and I still don’t follow what Pasha was trying to do before he decided to mess with the stage lights. The radio interview is bizarre and reads too much like shoehorning in a character speech. Pasha’s insistence that they weren’t supposed to officially confirm or deny their relationship publicly is laughable in the face of their public behavior. Usually stuff like that bugs me. In this case, though, the artistry of showing these two people falling in love, without hardly being aware it’s happening, overrode those few weird bits.
I literally just finished re-reading this last night and having written this, I want to read it again.
Sexy, fun romance between a kick-ass gal and a hot guy who needs to get his act together. Advice columnist Veronica Chandler moved back to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, after a stint in New York City convinced her that she’d never make it there as a writer, and also that she didn’t like New York City. Mountain-climbing librarian Gabe MacKenzie loves his new home in Jackson Hole, but it’s only temporary, because eventually he’ll be moving back to Manhattan to take over his family’s business…
…which he doesn’t tell Veronica. Yeah dude, good move.
Dahl always does a great job of creating fully developed characters. Veronica’s carrying some substantial insecurity from childhood, which fuels her empathy, but also keeps her from living her best life. I adore 1000% watching her grow both personally and professionally in this book. I would have read her book even if there was no romance, just to see her rock the mic at her live advice events.
Gabe is both sides of the Generous / Self-Sacrificing coin, one side of which makes him a good lover (when he’s being honest), and the other side of which almost destroys his chances with Veronica. And I was SO PROUD of Veronica for standing up to his b.s. and for what she needed to be happy. Strong woman + compassionate second chance = Gabe lucked out. He really does adore Veronica, and they have so much fun together, so I was quite glad he got with the program.
(This book has been released with a new cover. I’m leaving the old one in this post because I like it better.)
An opposites attract Scottish football (soccer) romance that I didn’t finish the first time I tried reading it. I loved Colin MacDuff, the grumpy, activist footballer from the slums of Glasgow whose family survives due to government assistance. I hated conservative, judgmental, wealthy Lord Andrew Sutherland with a fiery passion. Not knowing writer Avery Cockburn enough to trust her to bring Andrew around, I just couldn’t get past his ignorant anti-welfare opinions and general privileged ignorance about Colin’s life.
Lucky for me, I tried again, because Cockburn was in fact setting the stage for Andrew to grow.
Set during the referendum for Scottish independence, another political issue that divides Colin (pro) and Andrew (anti), this is an intensely political book, and I love it for that. I also love how she takes two men who are gunshy about making themselves vulnerable beyond sexytimes and finds authentic ways for them to open up emotionally to each other. It’s complicated, messy, and not always comfortable, but that was true to the characters.
The sequel novella, Playing Dead, is about Andrew dealing with the fallout from some difficult events in Playing to Win, and I adored it too.
I liked the first book in the Glasgow Lads series fine, and the third one was also good (I trusted Cockburn to bring her gay character who didn’t believe in bisexuality to a place where I didn’t want to smack him on the back of the head), but so far Playing to Win is the series standout. Any book in the series can be read as a standalone, except the #2.5 and #3.5 novellas wouldn’t make much sense out of context.
And that is my first-ever post about romance novels. Hope you found something interesting! If you have any reading suggestions, let me know, and as always, if you found this post helpful, please share it!