I wouldn’t relive my early 20s for a million dollars, but I apparently love a good new adult romance novel, novella, or short story). Here’s a set of my faves, including several picks with main characters who aren’t in college, since that’s not everyone’s life path. Hope you find something new to check out! (Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.)
Any book on this list I loved at the time I read it, whether I had a chance to write a review or not. Obviously a re-read years later might reveal a problematic aspect I didn’t pick up on back then. Please let me know via my contact form if you find something yikes in a book I recommend.
A fun, sexy sapphic short story about a wedding hookup between college student and bridesmaid Grace and her older brother’s best friend and “best man,” motorcycle-riding lesbian Maya. In Grace’s old Sunday School classroom. You see, both of these ladies had been attracted to each other since high school, and the weather in Atlanta is just so steamy when Maya picks Grace up from the airport… well, you know how these things go.
Kelley does a great job of establishing just enough character personality and backstory to ground the sexual tension and make the fling specific to these two people, all within a short story, which is impressive. The flirting is impeccable. There’s plenty of humor. This story made me a Jules Kelley fangirl and I have never regretted it.
Update: Kelley now has two sequel stories about these gals. Soak is available for free on the author’s website, and Shiver is available on Amazon.
A really good Black “how they met” M/F romance short grounded in the 2020 protests. Forrester packed a lot into a short piece, including full and rich personalities for both of the collage-age main characters.
“Kai is an accidental activist, drawn to protest only because the alternative—to not protest—feels unimaginable in a turbulent time like this. And Lila is a longtime social justice warrior. At least in theory. Trying to find their footing and independent voices in the middle of a new movement, they just might find something else—a new love.”
The only romance novel I’ve ever read that just about broke my heart with office supplies. I was absolutely captivated by this story of a young man sorting out his life after prison and falling in love with a single mom who’s working to become an accountant. If I made a bullet point list of everything that worked well about it, we’d be here all day, so I’m going to pick three things. First, I loved Sal’s narrative voice. Dry at times, never self-pitying, emotionally raw and honest, just amazing writing here. Second, I respected there were no easy answers to the conflicts Sal faces. Gangs are not full of one-dimensional monsters, and their roles in communities are not simple. This book honors that complexity. Third, the book is deeply compassionate towards the impact that our prison system has on people who end up in it. In this case, Sal develops an anxiety disorder and self-harms due to the discord between prison life and outside life. Hopkins pulls off that compassion without letting anyone off the hook for committing crimes, especially crimes in which people are hurt or killed.
It’s an amazing read.
What can I say about this amazing duology? The basic description was enough to pull me in: Nick, a closeted gay college student with anxiety, who was born Jewish in Russia before emigrating to the U.S., studies history abroad in London and falls for Dex, a black British engineering major. What I didn’t realize when I started is there’s a second plot interwoven with this, in which their female friend, film student Izzy, has her own POV and moves from believing she’s straight to accepting her bisexuality, and finally finds love too.
It leans a bit more literary fiction than most romances I’ve read, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a compassionate and skillful navigation through the social dynamics of friendships, crushes, and relationships among a super-close group of mostly queer college students. Kind of a flashback to my own college years, to be honest, with everyone flailing around and the feelings are SO BIG and SO REAL and things are messy and everything hurts, but also with lovely soaring moments and people supporting each other. Everyone’s really young and has the corresponding coping and relationship skills, but they’re all trying so hard, and I was always rooting for them. SO worthwhile to read, even though both books together is a lot of book. These characters stories wouldn’t have been tell-able in a shorter space, though. And it was so freakin’ refreshing to spend time with this fictional group of friends where gay, bi, trans, and POC is just normal, instead of having a token this or that in a predominantly white, straight, and cis cast.
Shout out to the epilogue, which doesn’t flinch from the realities of inter-continental relationships, but finds a place of happiness for Nick, Dex, and their found family.
Really satisfying new adult romance between Malcolm, a white bi trans guy with ADHD, and Peter, a Black gay guy with ADHD and autism. Malcolm is a fiery guy with a lot of edges, but I really don’t mind that in a young character who’s been through a *lot* and has actually coped it with it quite well overall. He has a fantastic growth arc during the book, too. Peter is a sweetheart and I adore him, and I love how both these guys are able to find their way to supporting and trusting each other.
I also thought the author, who is trans and “auDHD” (quotes are me indicating a quote, not using scare quotes!) did a fantastic job showing how queer folks form friend groups to replace hostile family. Malcom’s back-and-forth with his clearly devoted friends is often hilarious, especially the pretend-mean jokes many people make with those they know and love, such as when Jazz tells Malcolm his friends will always pick the side of laughing at his misfortune. This crew all has each other’s backs.
I did have some minor quibbles: bi-erasure by a secondary character (“if I were straight” used to mean “if I liked guys”), same with Han Solo described as “part of everyone’s sexual awakening,” ableist language (“moron” and “insane.”)
Overall, though, this was a lovely debut. I went around trying to find social accounts etc. for the author to make sure I don’t miss any future books, and only found one on Bookbub, so hopefully that will be enough.
When two theater nerds fall in love… one of them has to figure out if the other is a serial killer? Vin Penjarla kissed Phineas Harrington at a bar before she knew he was her theater director. She may not know anything about dating due to her traditional Indian-American parents, but she does know that snogging the boss is generally a no. All Phin knows is that he thinks Vin is lovely and wonderful in her eccentricities, and staying away from her is going to be a challenge. Okay, that’s not all he knows. He also knows a lot about death, for some reason…?
Cute little novella where the author messes with the reader’s head, dropping hints that Phin might not be what he seems. Both characters have secrets, though, and Vin’s turn out to be more difficult to resolve. Spooky without being scary, with a genuine affection between the two leads, and a lot of adorkable fun.
“Alison has been in her brother’s indie rock band, Right Turn, since she was a teenager. Right as she’s about to graduate college and will have to start making real decisions about her future, there comes an offer for them to go on a small tour with pop-country sensation Kristen Nichols, who is looking to make serious changes to her sound and image and believes touring with indie darlings Right Turn will give the new ‘her’ credibility.
Kristen Nichols is the embodiment of everything about the music industry that Ali scoffs at, but she’s offering them an affordable, real tour, and that’s very hard to say no to. Putting up with a pop princess for a summer is a price worth paying–or so Ali thinks before she actually meets Kristen.
‘K-Nic’ does absolutely nothing for her, but Kristen Nichols in person? Yeah, that’s a different story…”
I felt this as New Adult romance with a nonbinary MC; others might feel it more as YA. Either way, it’s lovely, heartwrenching, and important.
“Finding home. Falling in love. Fighting to belong.
The Santos Vista neighborhood of San Antonio, Texas, is all Ander Lopez has ever known. The smell of pan dulce. The mixture of Spanish and English filling the streets. And, especially their job at their family’s taquería. It’s the place that has inspired Ander as a muralist, and, as they get ready to leave for art school, it’s all of these things that give them hesitancy. That give them the thought, are they ready to leave it all behind?
To keep Ander from becoming complacent during their gap year, their family ‘fires’ them so they can transition from restaurant life to focusing on their murals and prepare for college. That is, until they meet Santiago Garcia, the hot new waiter. Falling for each other becomes as natural as breathing. Through Santi’s eyes, Ander starts to understand who they are and want to be as an artist, and Ander becomes Santi’s first steps toward making Santos Vista and the United States feel like home.
Until ICE agents come for Santi, and Ander realizes how fragile that sense of home is. How love can only hold on so long when the whole world is against them. And when, eventually, the world starts to win.”
A lovely, gentle, friends-to-lovers surfing romance novel that happens within a found/created family. It’s a really quiet book at times, which was 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 to make his comeback, Tai puts his life on hold to travel with Ollie. Ollie finds himself wanting different from 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.
[Update on a re-read: Still love this, but there’s this weird pattern where Tai and/or Ollie will use the word “boy” to refer to Tai’s sex partners where I would think the characters would use “guy.” They are 23 year old men who have been working/doing pro sports for at least five years. I don’t have an issue with the playful use of “boy” sometimes but this was distracting.]
An opposites attract M/M Scottish football (soccer) romance novel that I now love, but didn’t finish the first time I tried reading it! On first read I loved Colin MacDuff, the grumpy, activist footballer from the slums of Glasgow whose family survives due to government assistance. But I hated conservative, judgmental, wealthy Lord Andrew Sutherland with a fiery passion. I didn’t know writer Avery Cockburn well 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 this series, Glasgow Lads series, it was 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 IMHO. Any full-length novel in the series can be read as a standalone, but the #2.5 and #3.5 novellas wouldn’t make much sense out of context.
Dead Ringer by Heidi Belleau and Sam Schooler (out of print as of August 2019, I’ll update this when it’s republished / 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.
And that’s the list!