2020 has been a year that has taken so much from so many. It has also given. To me, it has given wonderful books to read. I have been incredibly grateful this year to the authors who worked on their books under the extremely difficult circumstances of the pandemic and politics. Their books have sustained my spirits under heartbreaking conditions. I could not have gotten through the year without them. Here are my top fifteen romance novels of the year (in alphabetical order by author).
Mr. Malcolm’s List by Suzanne Allain
The Honorable Jeremy Malcolm is handsome and wealthy and the greatest catch of the Season. But he is determined to not be caught. He has a list of requirements in the lady on whom he will confer the honor of being his wife. Full of good humor and period details, Mr. Malcolm’s List by Suzanne Allain is a story with a Shakespearean plot of how a smart, bright young woman brings this arrogant, pompous darling of the ton to his proverbial knees, and in so doing, confers upon him the honor of becoming her husband. The heart of the story is where we see an acceleration in his humility with a corresponding deceleration in his sense of superiority. Allain’s exploration of superiority hiding lack of trust issues is superb. Told much in the style of a traditional Regency, this book is an absolute delight.
Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn
This is a story of deep abiding love between two people, who, on the surface, are the antithesis of each other, but who, underneath it all, understand each other with the kind of meeting of hearts, minds and spirits that poets call “soulmates.” Margaret “Meg” Mackworth is a freelance artist who creates beautiful useful works of art through intricate lettering and decorative motifs. Reid Sutherland is an intense mathematical genius, who works incredibly long hours at his job on Wall St. Clayborn’s prose is so consonant with the characters and their emotions, that it is almost meta in the way the prose works in service of the story even as the story unfolds within its structure. In Love Lettering, Kate Clayborn has created perfection.
If a Lady Lingers by Anna Harrington
I was charmed by the characters, charmed by the story, charmed by the hand that created this book. Daisy Daring is the daring architect and interior designer behind her ailing father’s architectural fame. While she dreams of receiving recognition for her hard work and talent, she hides in the shadows because Society has patronized and dismissed her because she is female. Hugh Whitby, with his wildly colorful and flamboyant clothes, smiles from sunup to sundown and is enthusiastic about all that life has to offer him. Whitby brings light and joy to Daisy’s life, and he accepts the whole of her, from her reservedness and earnestness to her opinions and architectural brilliance. What could possibly be more attractive in a life partner? I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Here to Stay by Adriana Herrera
With Here to Stay, Adriana Herrera brings a fresh and fun look at workplace romance with an enemies-to-lovers theme. And as with all her books, what seems light on the surface has deep and serious undercurrents, such as verbal abuse and the deportation of immigrants. Dominican American Julia del Mar Ortiz leaves behind her familia to take up her dream job of running a charitable foundation for a big department store. Rocco Quinn is the talented consultant hired by the Foundation’s CEO to move the store into public ownership, which could eliminate Julia’s job. Herrera continues to wow me with her stories of complex fully-formed characters, found family, Latinx family relationships, starting over in new places, and success and happiness despite the odds.
Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho
Last Tang Standing is Malaysian author Lauren Ho’s debut book. She has carved out a niche for herself by positioning her book in the hyper-competitive sphere of legal eagles and the pressure Singaporean society exerts on its young to be successful and to conform. Andrea Tang is laser-focused on her career in a successful law firm. While her passive-aggressive mother wants her to marry a wealthy entrepreneur, Andrea can’t stop thinking about the supremely irritating Suresh Aditparan with whom she is vying to make partner. Ho successfully uses humor to bring up painful subjects, such as, Is my career making me happy? Can a cross-cultural romance survive in Singaporean society? Ho’s writing makes this an absolutely fabulous book.
Ties that Tether by Jane Igharo
Nigerian-Canadian Azere Izoduwa works at Xander in Toronto, North America’s top advertising agency. She was born in a Nigerian village and immigrated to Canada with her mother and sister at the age of twelve. Spanish Canadian Rafael Castellano is in the process of moving back to Toronto from NYC where he spent a few years. His time in NYC is something that he adamantly refuses to speak about with anyone, even his close family. Their one night stand ends up with Azere becoming pregnant. Their relationship is fraught with the pressure of her mother’s expectations of a perfect Edo Nigerian woman. To read this book is to read it for the tenderness of the romance and for the immigrant experience, to feel your heart soften and your throat clog with tears, and to celebrate the resilience of the spirit. A brilliant book.
The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
The Jane Austen Society is the best historical romantic fiction book I have read this year. Natalie Jenner writes this story of her memorable characters with deep sensitivity, great imagination and wonderful prose. Set mainly in the 1940s, the book is about individuals from the small insular English town of Alton, who, along with a few people around the world, are brought together by their love of Jane Austen’s work. Together, they form a society for the preservation of all things Austen, including her cherished former home in the village of Chawton near Alton. And in so preserving Austen’s legacy, they find hope, love and solace in their own lives, which have been overlooked by society and undervalued by themselves. Some of the subplots and scenes even have Austenesque stories embedded in them. The delight in reading this book was their discovery.
The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez
The book begins with sorrow. As an author, it takes guts to start a romance novel with a grieving main character. Jason is sweet and tender and thoughtful, while Sloan is prickly and slow to trust. But when she does decide to trust, she is all in. The strongest part of the book for me was not the falling in love aspect of the characters but how they work to fit their lives together. She is a brilliant painter, while he is a brilliant musician. Their careers could’ve been all-consuming, but these two special people reserve their highest regard for each other, while not shortchanging their art. The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez is a book that truly makes you believe that a romance is possible for everyone even if you were previously a non-believer. I absolutely think this could be a conversion novel for a non-romance reader.
Island Affair by Priscilla Oliveras
Sara is a celebrity social media influencer with a hugely popular blog and partnerships with many successful people and organization. She lives in New York City but is considering a move to Miami to work on a clothing line. Luis Navarro is a firefighter paramedic of steely resolve and steely muscles. He is a Conch, a Cuban American, living in the Florida Keys. I really liked Sara’s mantra, “I deserve better,” and she certainly does. They are so good to each other, and they instinctively know how to read each other’s feelings, while laying themselves open for the other to see. Island Affair by Priscilla Oliveras is a hug of a book — it fills your heart to the brim with its tenderness, warm-heartedness and kindness.
Claiming his Bollywood Cinderella by Tara Pammi
In Claiming his Bollywood Cinderella, Tara Pammi has created a thoroughly entertaining story of the one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. Naina Menon is a personal secretary to the great Vikram Raawal’s grandmother. In her personal life, Naina feels a great sense of responsibility towards her flighty stepmother and bright but irresponsible stepsister and is working to hold the family together. Hot looks and hot moves combined with sharp business acumen and wealth make Vikram Raawal a Bollywood legend, but along the way, success has become a shield and a wall that keeps everyone at arms’ length. This is a modern May-December romance between a young poor ingénue and a much older, much more experienced, much wealthier man without the story being one of overprotecting and rescuing the damsel-in-distress. This was my first foray into Bollywood via a book — who hasn’t seen a Bollywood movie? — and I loved it.
Headliners by Lucy Parker
How does Lucy Parker continue to deliver one fabulous book after another every year? This is her fifth book and my fifth ‘A’ for her. For years, Sabrina Carlton and Nick Davenport have been rival presenters on the same TV network. Neither can stand the other, and their feud has involved barbs being aired about the other on their shows, which the viewers have lapped up. In a Machiavellian move, their network chief decides to save the failing morning show by making them cohosts. They accept even though they want to maim the other. As their relationship progresses though, they are willing to give each other a second chance and no misunderstandings are allowed to fester, because they always look at the other in a benevolent charitable light. It is such characterization that makes Parker’s books so memorable. And unexpected sharp humor makes these moments truly shine.
The Rakess by Scarlett Peckham
Inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, Seraphina “Sera” Arden is a passionate liberalist and feminist whose core value is championing the rights of women. She is also writing her memoirs despite her painful past. Privately, she lives a hedonistic life of drinking and casual sex. She is answerable to no one and responsible for no one. Adam Anderson, on the other hand, is abstemious and fastidious. He has a large capacity for empathy, thoughtfulness and caring. He is a single father and an architect who sees politics in his future. Thus, if he were to marry again, he needs someone of exemplary character. This book has divided readers with strong opinions for and against the book. That to me is the hallmark of a great book. When a book engenders strong emotions in its readers leading to passionate discussions, a book rises from the ordinary to memorable.
The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon
Samiah Brooks is a brilliant software engineer who is a go-getter and loves her work. Daniel Collins, a biracial man (Korean-American and African-American), investigates financial crimes. On the surface, he is a tech worker just like Samiah. But unknown to her, he’s actually working undercover for the federal government, and it is not something he can divulge to anyone. Despite being coworkers, I liked how non-competitive and supportive they are. They allow each other to be their best selves at work, and that shows up in their relationship outside of work. Rochon explores the struggles of Black women in the workplace, particularly in the tech industry, with sensitivity and empathy. The Boyfriend Project is a wonderful mix of what I love in romance: romantic tenderness, great chemistry, bright individuals, expertise in their jobs, deep friendships with secondary characters, and excellent conflict between them leading to great trust-building.
Marriage by Arrangement by Sophia Singh Sasson
Rani Gupta has been languishing as a junior architect at RKS Architecture in Las Vegas, dangling on the promise of a promotion. She finally has a shot at it with her design ideas for a new hotel by a rising hotel group based in India. Arjun Singh is heir to a dynasty of hoteliers whose headquarters are in Rajasthan. He is also known as India’s hottest hottie with all its attendant adulation from the female half of the population. This story is about reconciling the differences between Rani’s family’s middle-class Indian values and Arjun’s family’s khandani parampara — the dynastic, wealthy, upper cast Indian values. And Rani is caught among these two value systems and her own American upbringing. In Marriage by Arrangement, Sophia Singh Sasson skillfully blends deep research and innate knowledge into memorable worldbuilding, and I just fell in love with her world. (And her next book is likewise fabulous.)
The Return of the Disappearing Duke by Lara Temple
Colonel Raphael, the Duke of Greybourne AKA Mr. Rafe Grey, ran away as a teen from his abusive father and stern, indifferent mother to the army. From there, he became a wanderer and mercenary for hire. Cleopatra “Cleo” led a circumspect life until her teen years with her loving mother. But after her mother’s death, she disguises herself as a boy and travels the world with her indifferent father. Her unusual upbringing accounts for her mistrustful personality, and this book is a heroine’s journey. The romantic tension between them comes not from just their attraction to each other, but also from their surroundings how they react to them. The Disappearing Duke has all the hallmarks of a great book with its sensitive, nuanced writing that allows for a myriad of emotions, sensorial details and complex characterization expressed in a paucity of words. Most certainly, a book to treasure.