2020 has been a tough year for me, especially for my reading. That’s why I could only consume what I call candy books: romance books–light books that I know aren’t the best but I read them anyway because they are easy to fall into and put a quick smile on my face (if done right). I have a love-hate relationship with romance; there’s so much potential to be had but I find many fall into stereotypes, regressive gender roles, predictable plotting, conventional romance norms, and archetypes of characters that never seem fully fleshed out. I have to say I do have hope for romance’s future though as recent ones seem to be more socially progressive and different. In this post, I try out different types of romance from fantasy romance to YA comtemporary and everything in between. I did include books with very heavy romance elements too. Before getting into the post, I do want to say I did actually find a maybe favorite of the year in this bunch. Can you guess which book it is?
Overall review: Highest rating is 5 “stars”How did I like the book in general? How did I like the plot, the story? My general thoughts?
Steam Factor: Highest rating is 5 “fires”; Kind of selfexplanatory, how were the steamy scenes ;); problematic;
Romance: Highest rating is 5 “hearts”; Did I even like the main pairing together as a couple? Problematic? Did I anticipate the couples’ every scene together? Did they work well together? Where’s that oomph factor? Were they developed as characters?
- The Kiss Thief by LJ Shen
Overall Review: You know at first, I was like sure, this is totally believable: a senator essentially selling his daughter out to another guy because he didn’t want to lose votes or something. Romance novels are oftentimes unbelievable but the plot was too weird even for me. Granted I did DNF this at the first really steamy scene because it was problematic on all levels and I was not having it so I gave up. It left such a bad taste in my mouth. There was a ton of unnecessary drama leading up to it and the type of drama that didn’t even add to the anticipation of the steam scenes. It’s gonna take a lot for me to try another LJ Shen book.
2. Tweet Cute by Emma Lord
Overall Review: This book was equal parts romance and equal parts coming of age; it’s almost hard to tell which one it is first, probably coming of age but I’m including it here anyways lol. I think what I’m starting to realize about myself and my taste in YA contemporary is that I love the fluffy but only when done exceptionally well like in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, otherwise, it just kind of falls flat. In this one, the whole time I was just waiting for Jack to tell Pepper about his true online identity and everyone knows Pepper was going to be fine with it so why bother waiting 90% of the book to tell it? I think the problem I have with withholding secrets in YA contemporary romance is that there are no stakes, you know the other person is going to be ok with it eventually. I also thought the family dynamic resolution was too clean at the end for Pepper at least. That’s what this was, clean. Nothing stood out, none of the characters. The heroine is the same archetype in all YA contemporaries, a stickler for the rules, has a plan laid out for her entire future, is a straight A student. The plot just has no stakes, no tension! That’s really it. But I did enjoy the Twitter rivalry. Any book that centers on food I am here for. And New York. I actually visited New York this year before COVID 19 hit and I love picturing all the references in the book I’ve actually seen (like the Met)!
Romance: (It was pretty cute but that’s about it)
3. Birthday Girl by Penelope Douglas
Overall Review: I get why Penelope Douglas is so well loved. She adds little details to the characters that elevate it over other contemporary romance writers. Also she writes taboo really well because you understand why these characters would like each other despite the age gap. But it ends up relying on romance cliches in the end.
Steam: (wow can Penelope Douglas write steam; the smut scenes were great and nonproblematic)
Romance: (Even though Penelope Douglas did try some different things in the romance, she fell trap to so many romance tropes that it ended up feeling cliche. Jordan is clearly a very distinct “not like other girls” woman. The author clearly wanted me to like her because unlike other girls, she gets down and dirty and likes doing working outside? Aren’t you a special snowflake? Of course Pike just can’t stand it when she wears really revealing clothing; it starts a fight and somehow the girl is always the one acquiesing. Isn’t there any other way for romance authors to build tension between characters???)
4. The Governess Game by Tessa Dare
Overall review: When it comes to historical romance, Tessa Dare is always a safe bet. Her books are a warm hug, nothing groundbreaking but endlessly cozy. I haven’t read any of her older books, but this trilogy applies modern norms of love to a historical setting so it’s candy but it’s candy where half the money goes to something like a woman’s shelter. It’s super cute. There’s endearing characters (the two daughters!) and very little drama and angst. As far as romance goes, you could do way worse. Each main character has his/her own dreams and goals and just come together all the more stronger.
Romance: (love the witty banter; also loving the slow progression of their relationship)
5. The King’s Man by Elizabeth Kingston
Overall: One of the things I dislike about the romance genre is how traditional it is, taking a while for progressive themes to take hold whether it’s race, gender, or gender roles so I’m always on the lookout for romance books that break this mold. This one sounded promising because it’s about a woman is a soldier and is trained in combat which I rarely, if ever see in romance, only second to probably a sexually promiscuous main character. But that’s another story. The synopsis had such promise!! But I was so disappointed at the writing and the offputting pacing. The characters were also stilted sometimes veering into being way too mean or way too nice. The hero in the story was also such a jerk so there’s that too.
Romance: (I will give some points for good progression? but other than that, I’ll pass)
6. Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
Overall: If I could be so bold, I think this is the best historical romance I have read this year and ever.. This had everything I wanted in a romance and more. I think a lot of times romance dialogue and scenarios can be really cliche and predictable which is fine but the details to build up these cliches can make a world of difference to the unique flavor of the story. I also appreciate that there wasn’t an overemphasis on how masculine or feminine the hero and heroine are respectively when describing them. I also appreciate that the conflict between the hero’s wealth and standing in society clashing with the possibility of having a relationship with his poorer heroine counterpart wasn’t just used as a one time climactic conflict that’s then solved instantaneously before the happy ending but rather a series of smaller conflicts to allow for character growth. There’s also some elements more typical of regency romance like the thinly veiled wit and ball scenes. The banter is also top notch. Also, I cannot forget the backdrop of the suffragette movement that actually took quite a bit of background which I appreciate. This is like top notch candy, candy you get at a bougie candy store like Sugarfina, with gummy bears made up of like gluten free ingredients but still taste great. I cannot wait for the second book in the series following one of the secondary characters (who btw are amazing).
Steam: (wish there was more but honestly what’s there is top notch)
Romance: (Love the two together; so much banter)
7. The Bridge Kingdom by Danielle L. Jensen
Overall Review: When I started this book, I was, by no means, expecting the worldbuilding to be good at all. One of my favorite romance tropes is “woman being sent away to be married to other guy from another kingdom” (idk why). Fantasy romances tend to have very soft worldbuilding but this one surprised me. Though by no means any close to the dynamic worldbuilding I love in epic fantasies, I appreciate the slight attention to detail and the mystery surrounding the world; it gave a great visual as I was reading. In these types of books, I expect the world to enhance the relationship of the characters instead of the other way around and this one did a solid job. I also appreciated the heroine was always looking for a way out and didn’t fall in love with the hero in her mental processes right away but really allowing the trust between both of them to grow naturally. She was always doubting which is great because it fits with how she grew up. It’s also really fast paced, perfect immersive beach read.
Steam: Could use just one more scene
8. If I never met you by Mhairi Mcfarlane
Overall: Overall, it was ok. It was lukewarm, nothing wrong persay I especially enjoy the character growth in the beginning after our heroine goes through a breakup after a 13 year relationship. But there was barely any sense of chemistry. The hints and dialogue at workplace feminism were a plus but not enough to make up for the plot and lackluster romance. (I just realized I forgot to include this poll but I guess knowing my review, it doesn’t matter)
9. Chain of Gold by Cassandra Clare
Overall: Not technically a romance, but has very heavy romance elements. You know what I really liked Chain of Gold at first but as I moved along, it was very clear that the sort of contrived tension and conflict building in Clare’s books continues to rear its ugly head. I thought Grace was going to be a true source of angst, like James would actually be in love with her for reals without any sort of manipulation (that would have been angsty) but no..And then I just lost interest. I do like the humor though. The four main heros’ personalities started to blur together for me. I do like Cordelia though; I think she’s definitely different than all of Clare’s other heroines. I did really like the Tessa, Will, and Jem cameos too. I ship Lucy and Matthew too; I hope that’s a thing in the next book.
10. A Curse so Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer
Overall: A retelling of Beauty and the Beast, which as we all know is all about the romance. I liked elements of this book in the moment but truthfully the characters were super bland. The heroine is a stubborn do gooder of course. I did like how she talked about how her cerebral palsy affects her daily life though. The hero an angsty king with a dark past. They both spent way too much time angsting about their problems and each time their problems were mentioned, there was no added depth to them so they felt very repetitive. There was nothing special about either and so nothing special about the romance either. I thought the plot took some interesting turns that I liked but overall an average book. I would read it if in the mood. It’s a quick read.
So we come to the end of the romance roundup! Did you guess right? If you guessed Bringing Down the Duke, you guessed right!! Pat yourself on the back, get some ice cream 🙂 I hope you enjoyed this post! Seeing this post and getting a taste of what I read and like in romance, is there any books you would recommend me?