I adore a good cranky character in a romance novel, especially if they stay on the cranky side even after falling in love. These books have some of my favorite misanthropes, anti-social pessimists, and suspicious cynics who would NEVER have let this annoying person into their lives if they knew what would happen. Hope you find something that looks good for your next read! Or for your TBR list, because let’s get real, we all have one.
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This M/M figure skating romance cracked me up. Charles Shaw is so determined to succeed in figure skating that he has no life, no friends, and no sense of humor. Of course that makes Jamie Morales irresistibly drawn to messing with him, because Jamie knows Charles is going to keel over from a heart attack if he stays this uptight. Forced proximity alert: they get paired with the same coach and must train together, oh noes! The coach even makes them partner skate to teach them a lesson or whatever!
There are a couple of plot weaknesses (what did we get from the thing with Jamie’s dad?), but overall this is a fun, pretty fluffy rivals-to-lovers story that I enjoyed as romance novel candy.
One of my fave F/F romances, between a younger bi gal and an older lesbian. Aspiring ballerina Anna catches the attention of demanding ice queen Victoria, the prima who retired due to disabling injury and now directs the company. That attention is at first professional. Victoria is chafing to do something more adventurous with the company’s next season, and she thinks Anna’s raw talent can help her get there. As the two women work together, though, neither can deny the mutual developing crush. I adored how so much of it was based on mutual admiration for each other’s talents and accomplishments, not just physical spark. It’s delightful to watch Victoria fumble around with her new and unfamiliar feelings, because she gets so cranky and fussy when she’s off-balance.
I’m normally wary of boss-employee romances, and I’m not sure the characters’ eventual framing of it as within the artistic tradition of a creator/choreographer and a muse/performer would resolve my concerns in real life. However, Keeley is quite willing to give both characters career options that don’t include each other, so it doesn’t feel like a situation where Anna will pay a high price if she decides Victoria isn’t for her. It felt much more grounded to me than the boss-employee romances that never ask the questions.
I was surprised to find this was a first published novel by Keeley! I mean, she might have ten more in a drawer at home, sure. But the prose is so well-crafted and enjoyable, and the characters are so complex and always stay true to their motivations, I enjoyed those two aspects so much. I’m very much looking forward to her next book.
Diversity note: I don’t know how Keeley identifies, but she has a wife.
My first romance novel with narration that breaks the fourth wall, and I quite enjoyed it. Gays of our Lives is an opposites-attract romance between two very different gay men: Emerson Robinette, an often-caustic, depressed GED teacher, and Obie Magovney, a cheerful hipster who rides a motorcycle and sells handmade ties. Emerson has MS, he’s not even a year out from his diagnosis, and he’s NOT in a good place with it yet. He’s given up on relationships, especially since he’s convinced his body won’t allow him to live out his BDSM fantasies with a partner. Obie, however, doesn’t see any reason why Emerson can’t have what he wants. He accepts Emerson as-is and helps him start exploring both his kink and the possibility of being happy.
Even on a second read, I never got a great feel for Obie except as a plot device to coax Emerson out of his shell. The story beats are there, so it may be my problem. But as someone who’s had chronic pain interfering in her life for over 20 years, I treasured this depiction of a healthy relationship where Emerson’s physical ups and downs aren’t seen by his partner as a big problem. There’s a lot of people without MS telling Emerson that he’s handling his MS wrong, but it feels very specific to Emerson’s particular stage of accepting his diagnosis. I’m not sure he was ever a sunshine and roses kind of guy before, but this is a snapshot of a low point and how he starts to climb out of it.
Diversity note: Ripper is genderqueer and prefers the z-based pronouns.
Dear Universe, I would like more high quality M/F queer romance, please, and soon. Please see this book for an example.
It’s about Ginger Holtzman, a prickly, stressed-out bisexual Jewish tattoo shop owner and painter, who does NOT trust cute, friendly sandwich shop owner Christopher Lucen, even though he’s clearly smitten with her. Well, it’s clear if you’re not Ginger, because she doesn’t trust even the idea of smitten. Also she’s far too busy working her ass off managing her business (and being rightfully pissed off about how the world treats anyone who deviates from the straight white man “norm.”) But, uh, Chris is quite sweet… and he does seem awfully forgiving of her rough edges…
What follows is a reversal of common romance tropes, and it’s so refreshing. Chris feeds Ginger, tries to understand her even when she doesn’t understand herself, and does his best to be patient even when she lashes out. The woman gets the aloof, suspicious role, and the man is the nurturer who coaxes her out. In addition, part of Ginger’s character arc is rethinking what professional success means before thr consequences of her overworking irreparably damage her relationship with Chris. There’s such a great mix of charming sweet moments and deeper, challenging emotional conversations here, mixing the budding romance with Ginger’s individual journey towards trust and also re-balancing her life.
As a bi woman who’s married to a man, I really appreciated how Ginger’s queer identity and her connection to the queer community are always central for her though she’s in a M/F relationship. Also loved how Parrish showed the conflict between Ginger’s experience with sexism and Chris working to understand and manage his male privilege. Parrish is GREAT at writing romances that engage with big themes and issues by showing how they play out in people’s lives, and she does that here in a deeply satisfying way.
Diversity note: Parrish is Jewish.
Not something I ever expected to read, but really damn good! The beginning of this book’s blurb is what sold me: “Just because Kate ‘Middleton’ McGrath wants a man to call ‘daddy’ in bed doesn’t mean— Oh, you stopped reading. Cool.” I have zero personal interest in that kink, but this made me laugh, and not once while reading did I regret my decision to buy this and give it a try.
BUT if the kink of sleazy stepfather pressuring teenage girl will bother you at all, then run-don’t-walk away! By the time Ty and Kate get to that kind of sex, I felt like the characters were so well established that I could clearly see this as role play, but obviously this could be super triggering for some folks!
Ty Henderson is a grumpy former firefighter whose fiancée cheated on him and walked out. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s this woman at the engineering firm where he now works who’s all cute and smiley and pretty and makes him think all kind of dirty thoughts that he can never act on, because he’s her boss. Grr! Kate McGrath, the female engineer in question, has SERIOUS unrequited submissive lust for her stern, much older boss… which become way more complicated after they accidentally sleep together on a company trip and both reveal some of their kinks. (She thinks he’s someone else, and yes, it makes sense in context!)
In between the hot sex that ensues, there’s mad character growth here. Kate and Ty each had significant challenges to dating and socializing while they were growing up. For Ty, it was his fear that his D/S desires meant he was broken and dangerous. For Kate, it was undiagnosed ADHD that made her seem “weird” to others. As the book starts, they’ve both made some progress recovering from these setbacks. Kate’s ahead of Ty, though, and much more proactive about working through her issues. She’d joined a roller derby team to try making friends, and she’s fiercely honest about expressing her true self online. Ty needs more of a kick in the ass to get out of the slump he’s fallen into, and he can be his own worst enemy because he’s so afraid. But by the end, their relationship’s in a better place because they’ve both made choices to stand up for themselves and gotten stronger as a result.
There’s so much of Kate’s heart and mind in her every interaction with Ty here that’s from her POV, and it’s gripping to see her struggling with what they mean together and how to handle her increasing feelings for Ty. The most striking sex scene from Tyler’s POV, in a supply room, is almost painful to read – in a good way – because he’s so conflicted over having romantic feelings. If Dangerfield taught a class in how to make sex scenes advance character and plot, it should be sold out.
A hot, emotional, very feminist romance novel about two people who click even though they shouldn’t. Isabelle West is an introverted painter who lives alone in the mountains, and that’s just fine with her. People suck. Who would want them around in large numbers? She has friends, her work, and if she wants to get laid, she can make that happen. Or there’s always internet porn.
When U.S. Marshal Tom Duncan meets Isabelle while he’s working a case, his reaction is basically “I suspect there’s something criminal in your past, so I’m going to help you even though you don’t want help, also I shouldn’t sleep with you but I’m going to!” HE’S A MESS. Serious Bad Decision Theater going on with him, like all the time. BUT he’s fundamentally a really good guy, and he really likes Isabelle, like “pass her a note during class and ask her to prom” level, and he eventually has to admit he’s made of wrong choices, so I just roll my eyes at him fondly. Isabelle wants him, I like Isabelle, so I want her to have him.
It’s a book about trust, which is something Isabelle doesn’t do and has to learn, but it’s not about how Isabelle needs a man in order to have a good life. I love how Isabelle is profoundly sex-positive. In the course of their conversations, Tom gets an eye-opening perspective about how U.S. culture teaches women not to ask for or enjoy what they want. There are multiple strong female friendships, awesome lesbian characters, and both Tom and Isabelle are over 35, which is rare in romance novels and much appreciated by me.
Bonus: neither Isabelle nor Tom want children, and the narrative is totally fine with that. As a person with a child who thinks childfree people too often get looked down on, I say yay to this.
Cranky older cop + irreverent amoral younger criminal = I could barely stop laughing to myself for the entire trilogy – which is one story across three books, not three standalones, just so you know.
FBI Special Agent Ryan “Mac” McGuinness meets con man Henry Page… kinda. By which I mean that Mac’s at a crime scene and witness Henry impersonates a local cop to walk away without anyone noticing. DAMMIT! So humiliating. When Mac does catch up with Henry, he almost wishes he hadn’t, and what follows is three books worth of satisfying mystery/suspense mixed with Mac going “what is WRONG with you?!” and Henry wisecracking, flirting, or escaping in response.
I was impressed with how, across the three books, Mac and Henry’s slowly coalescing relationship evolves and they have different kinds of conflicts. Henry lying and conning people isn’t just a job for him, it’s something he does to stay safe after a childhood of abuse and poverty. Mac wanting to find the real Henry and have a relationship with that guy is confusing and even threatening – does Henry even know who the real Henry is? Henry and Rock keep a lighthearted, funny tone to the series but also make space for the challenging emotional moments between Mac and Henry, as well as giving Henry depth through his love for his sister (who has a brain injury, and Henry’s her legal guardian).
If you’re a fan of donuts, Shakespeare references, guys rolling their eyes at each other while having mad crushes, and FBI agents trying desperately to hang onto their jobs while secretly dating criminals against their better judgment, give this series a try.
An opposites attract gay Regency romance between Jack Turner, a perpetually grumpy (he would say realistic) lower class “fixer” who helps women with difficulties they need kept secret, and disabled war veteran Oliver Rivington, a gentleman who usually sees the world in black and white.
Blended with an interesting mystery is a love story that can be summarized as Oliver thinking “Oh HEY I really like this guy, could I actually have a relationship and not just occasional sex? What a startling idea. And maybe I should try having it with this guy here because I really like him?” and Jack thinking “What the hell are you thinking, that would never work, we’re from two different worlds, get away from me, you, you… rich guy who doesn’t know anything about he the world works! Wait, I guess you could stick around for another day or two…” It’s so SWEET. Both characters move from resignation to hope in their own way, even though Jack won’t admit it’s happening, because he’s Jack.
As many Goodreads reviewers have pointed out, it’s also a deeply feminist book. Part of Oliver’s character arc is learning what Jack already knows, that women don’t have the same power men do to control their own lives, and thus the solutions to their problems can’t always be the same. Love that about it.
If you like that, then I also recommend Sebastian’s next book, The Lawrence Browne Affair (Amazon / Goodreads). Lawrence Browne, the anti-social science-minded Earl of Radnor, lives in isolation because of his possible “madness.” Jack sends his brother, slick con man Georgie Turner, to pose as Browne’s secretary to hide from a London colleague he screwed over during an attack of conscience. Radnor is actually on the autistic spectrum, not “mad,” but it takes Georgie’s perspective for Radnor to start seeing his life more clearly. Georgie also gets reality check from Radnor on his self-perception as a worthless, untrustworthy thief. (However it could be seriously uncomfortable for some readers because of Browne’s self-hatred and reaction to his “mad” family members, as helpfully pointed out by reviewer Xan West on Goodreads.)
Diversity Note: Sebastian is bi.
Charming little age-gap romance novella between Devin Hollister, who’s put his love life on the back burner to help his sister raise her child, and Jay Gomez, a younger man who usually dates older men, but has decided hell no to that, he’s tired of being condescended to for his age and his job in a retail store. If only Devin’s sister hadn’t used a photo of him from years ago on the online dating profile she set up for him before setting him up on a date with Jay.
Most of the story is will-they-won’t-they because Jay is initially furious about being tricked, Devin is seriously enamored with Jay but valiantly trying to find someone else to date, Jay is trying to stick to his guns on the “no older guys” front and struggling with insecurity, but they can’t keep their hands off each other. And Jay is so mad about it! Both characters are delightful and I rooted for them all the way.
Beautifully written story about arrogant, abrasive, and also bipolar Type 1 writer Ash Winters falling for relaxed aspiring model Darian Taylor, and then fucking it up a lot because Ash doesn’t think he deserves happiness. And then because it’s a romance novel, straightening that out and giving it another try.
Almost everything wonderful I have to say about this book has been said well by author Meredith Katz in her review on Goodreads.
She doesn’t mention that the scene where Ash and Darian get back together is the best get-back-together scene possibly ever in romance. So that’s my contribution.
Diversity Note: Hall is a gay man
I haven’t had time to review this, but I adore it just as much. Gabe is our crankypants in this one. Here’s the (condensed) blurb: “Gabe Byrne likes the simple life. Quiet, coffee, and the company of his horse are all he needs. David Meloy might be new to small-town life, but after the sudden passing of his husband, a fresh start is exactly what he needs. With his own vet practice and a new dog to keep him company, life is starting to feel good again. If only Gabe Byrne would stop insulting him in public. David’s a professional, so when the call comes about Gabe’s sick mare, David answers — even if it means getting stuck in a blizzard. Trapped together by the storm, can they look past their arguments to find a connection? Or will David’s conflicted feelings, Gabe’s insecurities, and the hard realities of small-town life rise to stand in their way?”
Diversity Note: Thorn is bi.
And that’s the list of my favorite romance novels with cranky characters! 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!