Keira Soleore’s Best Books of 2019

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I started out with a list of twenty-five books and sweated that list down to fifteen. But I couldn’t cut off any more books. So I’m going against the industry norm of top ten books with my fifteen. This is a good problem to have: It means I read many great books this year. There were so many other wonderful nonfiction, poetry, and children’s picture books I also read this year, but those I will detail on my blog, Cogitations & Meditations. For Frolic, I have the following fifteen romance novels (in alphabetical order)…

1. The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

Lucy Muchelney is a dedicated astronomer, brilliant mathematician and talented in multiple languages. Catherine Kenwick St. Day, the Countess of Moth, is a brilliant naturalist and artist. With Catherine acting as her benefactress against the world of men unwilling to let women into their world of science, Lucy charts her own path by embarking on an ambitious project to translate a seminal work on celestial mathematics from French to English. The two women bond over science, each with their own expertise, but deeply admiring of the other’s talent. They are colleagues first and then close friends, before they fall in love with each other. Full of superb historical detail, an engaging storyline, and excellent writing, Waite tells a story you will want to read again and again.

2. American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera

Everyone needs a Nesto Vasquez in their life. Someone who’s there to welcome you home, comfort you with a hug just when you need it and warm you up from the inside with beautifully-made food. And when that larger-than-life person comes with a willingness to be honest about their feelings and to openly share their life with you, you hold on fast to them and thank your lucky stars. Nesto is a Dominican American chef who owns a Caribbean food truck in NYC. Jude Fuller is a youth services librarian in Ithaca. He works by day at the local library with his best friend, Carmen. By night, he retreats to the house he owns and which he has made into a haven with carefully chosen furnishings and art he’s collected from his travels. Herrera has done a wonderful job showing how different these two men are and yet how perfectly they fit together.

3. Any Old Diamonds by K.J. Charles

Lord Alexander Greville de Keppel Pyne-ffoulkes, the second son of the Duke of Ilvar, is now known simply as Mr. Alec Pyne. He has come rather down in the world and works as a lowly sketch artist for illustrated papers and books, toiling in his studio under London’s skylights. Jerry Crozier of the Lilywhite Boys is a professional jewel thief who Alec hires to steal an obscenely expensive diamond parure gifted by the Duke of Ilvar to his duchess. Are the Lilywhite Boys able to pull the heist off? Will Alec be able to rise above his sense of debasement to find peace within himself and with Jerry? Will Jerry be able to overcome his habitual suspicious nature to be beguiled by Alec’s kind nature? Charles is one of those rare writers who pens near perfect romances. The juxtaposition of menace and affection, control and submission in this book are as exquisite as they are irresistible.

4. Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore

Annabelle Archer fights her cousin tooth-n-nail to give up her thankless job of unpaid labor in his household and become one of the earliest female students at Oxford on scholarship. Dunmore has built an unforgettable protagonist in the Duke of Montgomery with his intelligence, integrity, self-confidence, sense of self-worth, power over people around him including royalty and quiet vulnerability beneath the seemingly unbreakable armor of his personality. Annabelle is the perfect foil for such a man with her intelligence, confidence and self-esteem that successfully hide her own vulnerabilities. Annabelle and Montgomery come from vastly different stations in life: he is one step down from royalty; she is barely of the genteel classes. They could have nothing in common, not experiences, not upbringing, not friends. But instead they find books and thoughts that jive together that slowly build into an unimaginable companionship. When I read this book, I predicted it would feature on my Best Books list. And so it has. It is simply superb!

5. Can’t Escape Love by Alyssa Cole

Regina “Reggie” Hobbs is a super fan of Reject Squad Ultra and she knows everything that is to be known about the anime show. She is a strong, independent woman who uses quirkily-designed wheelchairs to get around because of her ataxia. She is the founder of GirlsWithGlasses, and through talent and sheer hard work, she has made her fledgling pop culture and social media enterprise into a hugely popular site. Gustave “Gus” Nguyen is a neurodivergent, gifted puzzle master who loves solving complex problems. His day job is being an architect, but in his spare time, he designs escape rooms. He has recently been hired for a dream project: designing a multi-room escape experience for Reject Squad Ultra. Unfortunately, he knows next to nothing about anime, romance, or the show. This book is all about happiness — happiness in love, happiness in work, happiness with life as it comes at you. Cole is a highly skilled writer, who can convey a wealth of emotion and meaning with a few well-chosen words.

6. Desire Lines by Elizabeth Kingston

Nan, lately of Morency, is an uncommon girl. Unearthly beautiful, resolute, and extremely talented in the fighting arts, she is journeying to Lincoln in search of her younger sister, whom she had promised on her mother’s deathbed to look after. Gruffydd ab Iorwerth ap Cynan Goch is a Welsh prince in exile who has sworn fealty to King Edward of England. Nan and Gryff meet with him chained to a post while she is surrounded by blood, not her own, as she saves his life and hers from a band of marauders. Noting how close to death he is, she takes him under her wing on the journey to Lincoln, where he goes to find a dear friend from his fostering years and she goes to find her sister. Elizabeth Kingston is a gifted writer of medieval romances, and this story is a thing of beauty: complex in essence, rich in detail and characterization, with every word indispensable to the story.

7. Kiss and Cry by Mina V. Esguerra

Calinda “Cal” Valerio is a figure skating superstar in the Philippines, having won numerous gold medals in various competitions. Now Cal is retired and no longer competes; instead, she choreographs routines for other figure skaters and puts on shows and performances. Filipino-American Ramirez “Ram” Diaz-Tan is an award-wining star of the Philippine national hockey team. Living part of the year in Houston, where he is an English teacher, and part of the year training and playing in Manila, Ram leads a busy life moving seamlessly between his two worlds. Both Cal and Ram are dedicated in helping younger skaters to take up the sports. This is all about kilig (Tagalog), that sense of romantic excitement in a love story. Even as the characters in the story feel it from their first kiss through all their tender moments together, the reader feels it watching them. That ability of the author to not only show her characters feeling this emotion but to also make the reader feel that emotion makes an ordinary story extraordinary.

8. Man vs. Durian by Jackie Lau

Valerie used to be a software developer and in a deeply committed relationship, or so she thought, till her boyfriend used her and discarded her without a thought. Within days of his loss, she lost her high tech job also, and is now helping her friend out at her ice cream shop while searching for a fake doctor boyfriend to get her mother off her back. Peter is a landscape designer and installer. He loves his work and is happy where life has taken him. The only thing he absolutely hates is…durian, but, unfortunately for him, the fruit features largely in his life. One day, he impulsively stops by the ice cream store where Valerie works. Who could imagine a story where a couple bonds over durian? Durian, you ask? Yes, I am talking here about that spiky fruit that smells extremely strongly of natural gas, rotten onion, and vomit. And from this improbable aphrodisiac, the inimitable Jackie Lau has built a sweet romantic tale.

9. Miss Dominguez’s Christmas Kiss and Other Stories by Lydia San Andres 

This anthology is set in Edwardian Caribbean across the Christmas, New Year and Reyes Magos (Epiphany) holidays. Miss Dominguez’s Christmas Kiss is a sweet story about shopgirl Lourdes Dominguez, who has been harboring a crush for her boarding house roommate Marisol Pascual. The story is about their discovery that their feelings are mutual. Mrs. Gomez’s New Year’s Surprise is a tender tale about the manager of the boarding house, Genoveva Gomez, who is a forty-seven-year-old widow and mother of adult children and the thirty-six-year-old American translator Tom Hale. In Miss Weiss’ Reyes Present, teacher David Ramos endearingly keeps spending money so he can speak with the clerk at the children’s counter, Leticia Weiss. But he is running out of money since both he and Leticia are also committed to making holiday magic happen for some of the boys at the boarding house who are poor. This collection was a joy to read and one I highly recommend for the coming holidays. 

10. The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker

A soft, tender romance with someone whose scathing review calls her an “overexposed, chronically confused crowd-pleaser who’s built a career riding on her family coattails”? Yes, indeed. This is a story of a bubbly, sassy, perennially optimistic actor who is paired with a dour, curt, glacial theater critic. J. Ford-Griffin “Griff” has hidden depths of loyalty and empathy and affection, which Frederica “Freddy” Carlton has to drill down to discover, and to the reader’s enjoyment, she does it with insouciance, self-possession and protective concern for him. These two really fancy each other, and Parker proceeds to convert the reader’s “no way” to their relationship to “of course.” I love Parker’s books, so this was easily one of my most anticipated reads of 2019, and it has fulfilled all its promise. Parker truly knows how to wring every emotion out of you, from tears of empathy to tears-in-the-eyes laughter. Her razor-sharp dialogue and witty observations will leave you riveted and enjoying every moment of it.

11. The Awakening of Miss Henley by Julia Justiss

Emma Henley is well-dowered but unfortunately saddled with the moniker: The Homely Miss Henley. She is convinced that her plainness may not inspire a man to ardor, but she refuses to embrace her fate of house and children while her husband pursues pretty women. She also refuses to take on a useless fribble for a husband — she is interested in one who believes a wife is his equal and supports her involvement in the reform movement. Lord Theo Collington is a charming wastrel endowed with the moniker: The Incomparable Lord Theo. Drinking, gaming and wenching are the worthy pursuits of a gentleman, his father preaches and Theo embraces. Of marriage he believes that if he were ever forced to marry, he cannot imagine being faithful to any woman. What I loved best about this book is a conviction that is near and dear to my heart: People can and do change their minds and hearts to find deeper truths. It’s in the style of my favorite sub-genre of historical romance: The Traditional Regency, and I loved it to pieces.

Emma Henley is well-dowered but unfortunately saddled with the moniker: The Homely Miss Henley. She is convinced that her plainness may not inspire a man to ardor, but she refuses to embrace her fate of house and children while her husband pursues pretty women. She also refuses to take on a useless fribble for a husband — she is interested in one who believes a wife is his equal and supports her involvement in the reform movement. Lord Theo Collington is a charming wastrel endowed with the moniker: The Incomparable Lord Theo. Drinking, gaming and wenching are the worthy pursuits of a gentleman, his father preaches and Theo embraces. Of marriage he believes that if he were ever forced to marry, he cannot imagine being faithful to any woman. What I loved best about this book is a conviction that is near and dear to my heart: People can and do change their minds and hearts to find deeper truths. It’s in the style of my favorite sub-genre of historical romance: The Traditional Regency, and I loved it to pieces.

12. The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

Tran Ngọc Mỹ (Esmeralda “Esme” Tran) is a poor country girl supporting a family of four consisting of her grandmother, mother, and daughter by cleaning toilets and hotel rooms in Hồ Chí Minh, Việt Nam. It is there that she is approached by Diệp Khἀi”s mother to consider living with him in California in order to get to know him better and marry him. With a lot of trepidation, she agrees to meet him to see if they are compatible and interested in getting married. I have never laughed so much reading a book as I did the first two-thirds of this book. Khἀi’s continual feeling of WTF where his mother and Esme are considered is as endearing as it is hilarious. His Vietnamese-American outlook to life and their socio-cultural background from Việt Nam make for many “ships crossing in the night” interactions between them. Every once in a rare while a book comes along that sweeps your emotions away and you are never the same after it. This was one such book. It’s a treasure.

13. The Madness of Miss Grey by Julia Bennet

Helen Grey is the by-blow of a very influential duke who has a reputation for always walking the straight and narrow. To hide his misdeed, he has Helen imprisoned in a madhouse for the wealthy. The conditions Helen lives in under the thumb of a barbarous doctor and a sadistic nurse and the mental and physical tortures they inflict on her are unnerving to read. Helen’s saving grace is newly-arrived Dr. William “Will” Carter, who is a highly principled and brilliant doctor. He becomes convinced that she is completely sane but her life and mind are in danger of being destroyed by her cruel caretakers. This is such an exquisite story of torment — the torment of doing the right thing and the torment of being right and unable to do anything about it. The sensitivity and strength of purpose that Bennet brings to the tale is at once elegant and harrowing, and the ultimate achievement of the happily ever after feels just as much a triumph for the characters as for the reader.

14. There’s Something about Sweetie by Sandhya Menon

Sweetie Nair is a Malayali-Indian-American girl, who’s a star track athlete at Piedmont High. She has been dogged for years by fatphobia from people who think she is less than them because of the way she looks. She is not at all ashamed of her body — in fact, she is proud of her athletic prowess — but she is deeply hurt by her mother’s attitude towards it. Ashish Patel is an Indian-American boy, who’s a star basketball player at Richmond, a prep school for the über rich. is recovering from the loss of his girlfriend, who cheated on him, and he has now lost his mojo and confidence in his dealings with girls and on the basketball court. Menon is a fabulous writer whose voice, writing skills, and characterization are perfect for YA Romance. Her books are lit with the joy of living the best life you can, despite the trials and tribulations that come your way. Life is not all doom and gloom — there is always something positive to hope for and joyously welcome when it comes along.

15. Work for It by Talia Hibbert

Olu Keynes is a sharp-tongued man who has been numbed emotionally since childhood due to continual trauma by his abusive father and ex. He’s often overcome by self-loathing and anxiety before disappearing into an icy deadened state. Griff Everett thinks he is big and ugly and the locals treat him like a pariah, so he has become a loner. Griff and Olu meet at Fernley Farms, where their job is to work with plants. Those who love the BBC series Cranford will love Hibbert’s small English village atmosphere, with its gossipy neighbors, small-minded, supercilious villagers, and strict social class. Griff and Olu have serious emotional scars from their tough lives, but there is a thread of hopefulness that runs in their lives that allows them to reach out to each other. Hibbert is one author whose work just keeps on getting better. This one was the best of her books this year.

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