Sunday, December 5, 2021

My Best Romance Novels of 2021

Here are my best romance novels of 2021 (in alphabetical order by the authors' last names):

The Brightest Star in Paris by Diana Biller
This book was a wow book for me. In this gorgeously written romance, Diana Biller provides a fascinating view into the psychological makeup of two haunted lovers, where one is literally haunted. Yes, there are ghosts in this book. This is a stunning novel of tender emotions amid harsh circumstances. The romance is set in 1878 France, seven years after the horrific events of the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune. It’s an unusual setting for a romance, full of great strife and turmoil, and Biller provides readers with a fabulous immersion into that place and time. The heroine is a prima ballerina with the Paris Opera Ballet. The hero and heroine met 12 years ago in a whirlwind summer romance, but she broke it off. Now he is back and determined to rekindle their romance, yet she sends him away again. He realizes that he has to let her go so she can decide if they are meant to be together. This book is very much her journey from living a rigid life of conformity and denial into one of acceptance and courage and in charge of her happiness. (Review here.)

The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by KJ Charles
KJ Charles continues to write book after book of near perfection. She is a courageous writer who doesn’t shy away from morally ambiguous characters, where a protagonist can hold positive and negative traits in balance; sometimes one takes precedence over the other. The end is always positively sound while still retaining some of the ambiguity. Sir John Hartlebury “Hart” is a baronet, a prosaic member of the Upper Ten Thousand with a good-sized property, and also a tradesman efficiently managing his sister’s brewery. He is a large man with a large voice, who cannot be bothered to temper his views or mind his manners when in company. He retains an avuncular interest in the future of his niece, wanting her to acquire some town bronze, while safeguarding her fortune from the hands of fortune hunters. Robin Loxleigh is a gazetted fortune hunter. He and his sister, Marianne, make no bones about them being down on their luck and from a small village in Nottinghamshire, here in London to make advantageous marriages. They charmingly cozen everyone into thinking them to be harmless, so Society casts a benign eye over their machinations. Robin and Hart meet when Robin inveigles himself into the notice of Hart’s niece, and Hart is instantly suspicious of him. (Review here.)

Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron
There is food and friendship, vulnerability and defenselessness, affection and aloofness, birth family and found family, betrayal and the requisite expiation. And above all, there is love and laughter. Heron draws on her own Indian Tanzanian Canadian Muslim heritage to authentically write about her culture in the dishes where the Gujarati Indian food has an East African twist, in the occasional comments about what is allowed or disallowed in Islam, in the Canadian-ness of the heroine’s outlook to life, in the longing the hero has for the beauty of Dar es Salaam and the spices of Zanzibar. Reena works in finance, a field she despises. It is a field she chose in defiance of her parents’ wishes to work in their real estate business. She wants to be independent. Nadim has come to Toronto from Dar es Salaam via a graduate degree from the London School of Economics. A big stumbling block for Reena is that Nadim works for her dad and is the chosen one "from the Muslim Bachelors 'R' Us warehouse" for her hand in marriage by both sets of parents. (Review here.)

The Sweetest Remedy by Jane Igharo
This is a lovely women’s fiction tale set in Nigeria. The country comes alive from Igharo's personal experience as a Nigerian-Canadian author. Hannah is biracial and writes for an online magazine. She is very close to her loving Caucasian American mother. Her wealthy entrepreneur father abandoned them when he returned to his family in Nigeria when Hannah was little. Lawrence runs one of her father’s companies in Nigeria. By the terms of her father’s will, Hannah is invited to Nigeria for his funeral. The heart of the story is of Hannah stepping away from constantly feeling unwanted by her father, to forgive him, and to allow his family to embrace her as one of their own. She lost her father, but gained a family.

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin
A touch of a hand. Warmth. A cupping of the face. Tenderness. Glances and long looks. Mesmerizing. There is a wealth of meaning in small, small things. Relationships are spun out of romanticism like this, infused with the weight of regard and understanding and care. Such is the beauty Jalaluddin brings to to this book. Hana is a young first-generation immigrant woman, living in the Golden Crescent region of Toronto. She dreams of working in radio, telling stories of people and how they live in the world. To make that dream a reality, she interns at a radio station, while honing her skills on a secret podcast with a deeply loyal following. The Golden Crescent is made up of first- and second-generation family-owned stores, such as Hana’s family’s Three Sisters Biryani Poutine restaurant, a halal fixture in the area. Aydin is a newcomer to the Golden Crescent, brash and wealthy. He is a first-generation immigrant as well and comes from faraway Vancouver. He has come to open his own halal restaurant and is determined to put Three Sisters out of business. To Hana, even if Aydin’s restaurant were to fail, he would always have his father’s wealth and contacts to fall back upon, but if her mother’s restaurant were to fail, her family would be bereft, their very survival at stake. (Review here.)

Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean
Awash in tenderness, with limitless care, Emiko Jean leads with her heart. This YA contemporary romance is a story that is American and Japanese and neither and both. Like the delicate sakura, the protagonists’ love is essential to them, the very air they breathe; whether like the blossoms it will be impermanent or endure is for the future to know. This is the story of Izumi Tanaka becoming... A senior at Mount Shasta High School in California, Izumi often feels like an outsider in the place of her birth. As a single child of a single parent, she has often felt lonely, but her questions about her father have gotten instantly shut down. Naturally, she has wondered if he even knows she was born; would he accept her if he knew she existed; does he care—these are questions that circle her mind obsessively. A chance glance at a book reveals a name, expert Googling later there is a contact, a letter is sent...and highly polished Japanese officials show up in her kitchen with its cracked yellow linoleum floor. Her Imperial Highness Princess Izumi, they call her. She’s the illegitimate daughter of the Crown Prince of Japan and he wants her to visit him at his residence, Tōgū Palace, in Tokyo. Izumi shows up at Narita airport in leggings and a faded sweatshirt and is greeted by Akio Kobayashi, a gorgeous Imperial Guard with a stick up his backside. (Review here.)

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
How do you romance someone on your subway commute? Especially when, she is lost in time and trapped on a train? And especially, especially when you want to help her return to her time in the 1970s? One Last Stop is a new adult, queer, magical realism spin on Kate & Leopold. Life circumstances have made Caucasian American August Landry a cynic. She arrives in New York with her entire life in a few boxes. She moves into an apartment with people who are wildly different from each other. And yet, they meld together in one close, wisecracking family. August meets Asian American Jane Su, in her ripped jeans and leather jacket, on the Q train. From the first, August is entranced and hopes she can meet Jane again and again. And she does...until she realizes that Jane is actually a time traveler from the 1970s stuck on the Q train. The book cover is fabulous and has such tiny-tiny details from the story. (Review here.)

Reckless by Selena Montgomery AKA Stacey Abrams
This was my first book by Stacey Abrams. I keep meaning to read her hugely popular mystery, but I have been a bit leery whether the book is popular because of the contents of the book or Abrams' name. However, this book has convinced me that she is an excellent writer. I am hoping Avon plans on publishing other of her Selena books. Reckless has a mystery as well as the romance, and both are very well paced. The heroine is a high profile celebrity defense attorney in Atlanta and he is a small-town sherriff in a small town in Georgia, who moved there from Chicago and finds that the small town suits him better. This small town is also where the heroine grew up, and moving back here to defend a client has her questioning her high-stress job in the big city. (Review here.)

First Love, Take Two by Sajni Patel
The story is set in the same circle of friends as Patel's debut book, The Trouble with Hating You. An Indian American woman fell in love with a Black American man back in college, but pleasing her parents and his father's disdain caused her to repudiate him. He was devastated. Now they're back in touch and sharing an apartment and just as much in love. Will they fight their parents for their right to love each other or will they continue to let their parents dictate who they should be with?

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers
Nearly fifty years ago, Joni Mitchell sang, “we are stardust” and Carl Sagan famously said that we are made of “star stuff.” The protagonist in this book by Morgan Rogers is indeed the child of the cosmos. The universe conspired to make her. And inspired her to dream of becoming an astronomer.Grace Porter has a newly minted doctorate in astronomy from Portland. Eleven years of dogged hard work and weekends and summers sacrificed to research and achieving new and newer heights in her pursuit of perfection have left her burnt out. Job search has been heartbreaking as she realizes that the field of her dreams is rejecting her Black heritage. In a bid to shore her spirits up, Grace goes off to Las Vegas with her dearest friends. And there, one night, she meets a girl with stars in her eyes and roses in her cheeks; they get drunk; they get married; and they buy a lock together with matching keys and rings. After a night together, the girl leaves behind a love note to her Honey Girl with a calling card and a photo. Yuki Yamamoto is a Japanese American child of immigrant parents living in NYC. She is a medieval history major who waitresses for her living needs and assuages her lonely soul and those of others in a late night radio show called Are You There? (Review here.)

Peter Cabot Gets Lost by Cat Sebastian
An m/m story set in the 1960s, unfolds over the course of a cross-country journey by car from Boston to LA. Peter is the son of a super wealthy Massachussetts family of politicians, with his father running for president. All his life, he has been considered the family's disappointment. He never measures up to their drive and ambition; and they don't yet know that he is gay. Throughout his four years of college, he has lusted after his classmate Caleb, the one who has it all together. Or so it seems. Caleb comes from poverty and through dint of scholarships and sheer hard work has made it through an Ivy League university. Now, he has landed a prestigious job at LA Times as a journalist. But he just has to get there, and he has very little money left, and his ride skipped out on him, and he is stuck...and in tears. Spying Caleb on the side of the road, Peter jumps to his aid and offers to drive him to LA—mentally consigning his father's campaign to the flames. His family thinks very low of him, and he just plans on pleasing himself from now on. Peter is all laconic charm, bending over backwards to please. Caleb is grumpy, prickly, and has a chip on his shoulder about money and paying his share. The heart of the story is how they grow together and become more of themselves through the belief and support of the other in them. They each believe that the other is wonderful in every which way. And a journey that was supposed to take days becomes a life-long committment. Tender and fierce, this book is what romance is all about.

Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words by Annika Sharma
Tender, attentive, thoughtful...this book is what true romance is all about. Kiran Mathur is a Type-A biomedical engineer who moved to Duke from India and on to New York City. Nash Hawthorne is a child and adolescent hospital psychologist from Nashville. They connect over chai, philosophy, and the vibrant city around them. This is the first South Asian multicultural book I have read where one set of parents is based in India, so the clash is between conservative Indian Indian values and Southern Caucasian American values as opposed to Indian American and Caucasian American values in nothern cities, which are easier to meld. Sharma's work is pitch perfect here as she has her protagonists walking the tightrope between what their hearts desire and what their cultures demand of them. (Review here.)

The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon
An excellent enemies-to-lovers book. Shay Goldstein is Caucasian Jewish American and a producer at a public radio station in Seattle. She secretly yearns to be a host of her own show, but in ten years of taking crap from her sexist boss, she hasn’t made much progress in that direction. Dominic Yun is Korean American and has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He is intent on making his mark in serious journalism. Inexplicably, he chooses to do so at a radio station despite his fear of public speaking, because he sees that as a springboard to journalism greatness. Shay and Dominic’s animosity towards each other fuels great banter between them. (Review here.)

The Fastest Way to Fall by Denise Williams
This book delves deep into the psyche of a woman struggling with body image and sense of self. It is not a story about weight loss, but about learning to love who you are and about falling in love with someone who helps you feel strong. Britta Colby is a curvy Black woman whose goals are to jump out of a plane and to look and feel good naked. Britta refuses to allow being fat to define her. And yet, rejection from a crush about her looks causes her to doubt herself and wonder if she’s good enough. Wes Lawson is the CEO of FitMe Fitness, a hugely popular, individualized, body positive lifestyle app. Through its clever matching algorithm, FitMe teams up each client with a professional coach who helps them meet their goals. FitMe’s cardinal rule is that neither the client nor the coach should know each other outside the confines of the text-based coaching experience of the app. However, early on, when Britta’s emotionally miscalculated crash dieting and over-exercising cause her to put out a frantic call for help, Wes breaks confidentiality to rush her to the hospital. (Review here.)