SOME OF MY FAVOURITE PICKS FROM 2019
Picking my favourite books each year is always a stressful but delightful challenge, and while there was no overarching trope eclipsing all others, great writing continues to be the prevalent theme among the books I’ve loved the most. And, to top it all off, nearly half of the incredible books on this list are from new-to-me authors. From the Victorian Era to the Gilded Age to an alternate-timeline America, from kickass superheroines to young suffragists to modern-day activists—this was one of my most electrifying reading years to date, and I hope you find YOUR next great read here.
Happy reading, book junkies! ♡
Most Thought-Provoking Story | All the King’s Men Duet by Kennedy Ryan
“I love her. I don’t own her. You don’t hold back someone like Lennix because the beauty is in how she flies. I want to see her soar. I just want to make sure she always lands safely.”
At a time when everything in the world feels uncertain and bleak, and the safest path is to stay away from topical issues, it takes guts and heart to write a story that not only engages with some of the greatest environmental and social challenges of our time, but also touches on a range of hot topics rarely found in a genre that is supposedly all about escapism and fantasy. Luckily for us, Kennedy Ryan has both in spades. This story sets a new bar in the genre for what it means to write a complex, well-rounded story that masterfully navigates political, social, and cultural realms, without ever taking away from its primary romantic plotline. Exquisitely written, meticulously researched, tender, yet oh-so steamy—this is the Mary Poppins of Contemporary Romances: practically perfect in every way.
Most Romantic Storyline | The Widow of Rose House by Diana Biller
“Love isn’t naïve, Alva. It’s hope, and it’s faith, and it can outlast buildings and wars and empires.”
There is something eminently satisfying about a book that makes you feel so much, and so deeply for the characters, a book that makes you laugh even while you’re looking over your shoulder, just in case something is creeping up behind you. A ghost-hunting adventure and sweeping romance in equal parts, and peppered with moments of breath-holding tension, it amazes me that this Gilded Age gem of a story is a debut effort. It’s a moving, evocative, beautifully told and, at times, chilling read, and if gripping romance with a gothic edge and a dash of the supernatural happens to be your thing, then this is the perfect novel for you.
Most Intriguing Premise | Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
“Should I tell you that when we’re apart, your body comes back to me in dreams? That when I sleep, I see you, the dip of your waist, the freckle above your hip, and when I wake up in the morning, it feels like I’ve just been with you, the phantom touch of your hand on the back of my neck fresh and not imagined? That I can feel your skin against mine, and it makes every bone in my body ache? That, for a few moments, I can hold my breath and be back there with you, in a dream, in a thousand rooms, nowhere at all?”
From the moment I heard of a book about a rebellious First Son of the United States falling for the Prince of England, I became wildly obsessed with getting my hands on it, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to become one of my most beloved books of the year. Casey McQuiston’s distinct and wonderfully whimsical writing style makes us lose ourselves in a tender romance that moves, inspires, and makes us believe. McQuiston paints a beautiful portrait of humanity with a story that celebrates love, courage, and individuality in all its glorious colours, quickly becoming one of the most romantic tales I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
Greatest Sexual Chemistry | Heat Stroke by Tessa Bailey
“… they were exploring something honest and when they were alone, the world was narrowed down to just the two of them. And the two of them together was everything right.”
Set against the vibrant, summer backdrop of Long Beach’s iconic seascape, this story tugs at the heartstrings in all the right ways, making us laugh, swoon, and pant all the way through, and it’s the kind of head-over-heels romance I so ardently long to believe in. Tessa Bailey’s talent for creating a tender, erotic love story with real depth is on display as ever, and with the perfect blend of banter, emotion, and crackling love scenes, she delivers a stirring love story that delves deep into the hearts and souls of its characters, kindling deep emotions in the reader and a stronger-than-normal attachment to its two leads.
Most Provocative Storyline | Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean
“I have never been an equal. Even as I fought for all the things I wanted, I never had a choice. Not really. I always had a father or a brother or friends to tell me what I should choose. What I could have. Who I am.” She met his eyes, their amber fire unwavering on her. “And then I met you. And from the very start, you offered me choice. You never told me what I should want. What I could and could not have. You made me your equal.”
I’m an avid reader of historical romances, forever drawn to a world where dashing rogues fall head over heels in love with intrepid damsels, but few authors continue to amaze me with the way they engage so purposefully with female identity, body norms, and sexuality in their stories, rather than merely accept the traditionally accepted. And Sarah MacLean is one of those authors. Book after book, I’ve come to expect nuanced character development and enthralling storylines from this author, but she will never stop blowing my mind with the subtle social commentary lacing her stories, transcending time and place, and tirelessly celebrating gender equality in all its forms. Poignant, intense, and full of heart—this, to me, is historical romance at its very best.
The One That Made Me Ugly-Cry | How To Love A Duke in Ten Days by Kerrigan Byrne
“Could she be real? Did he hold in his arms the rarest of creatures? A woman of substance. Of integrity? One who tended more carefully to the capacity of her heart than to her coiffure? One who thrived on intellect and honor and genuine interaction rather than the empty endorsements of her peers? He’d begun to despair that such a person ever truly existed.”
Renowned for her female leads that are aware, independent, brave, and freethinking, Kerrigan Byrne’s heroines are always wonderfully modern without seeming out of place in their 1800s setting, and this novel reflects more than ever an era that gave rise to so many progressive women and female social reformers. The heroine is her own knight in shining armour—she is the daughter of an Earl, an accomplished archaeologist, and a rape survivor, but a dark secret from her past leaves her with no other choice but to propose marriage to a man whose touch she dreads. And while her male counterpart is a tortured alpha whose own past might have made him distrustful of any woman wishing to marry him, he proves to be a broadminded, protective, and devoted partner in all the ways that matter. Just when I thought nothing could ever beat the Victorian Rebels novels, Byrne gives us a mould-breaking romance that is sure to forever remain one of my absolute favourites.
Most Heart-Clenching Scenes | The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
“How did you change your life when you were trapped like this? Her history didn’t define her. Her origins didn’t define her. At least, they shouldn’t. She could be more, if she had a chance.”
An arranged marriage scenario between a gorgeous, extremely successful Vietnamese-American man who also happens to be on the autism spectrum, and a young, mixed-race single mum whom his mother met in Vietnam—working as a hotel maid—and talked into coming to America for the summer to meet her son. There’s reluctance on both sides at first, but an emotional bond quickly begins to form between them, and we begin to hope that a true love connection could follow. But regardless of how irresistibly attracted he is to the heroine, the hero believes himself incapable of love, so he keeps pushing her away, unknowingly feeding her insecurities of not being good enough for the man she loves. A touching, compassionate, beautifully developed tale that made me cry more times than I wish to admit. Hoang’s nuanced portrayals of characters on the spectrum continues to take my breath away.
Most Evocative Setting | Moti on the Water by Leylah Attar
“When you’ve been looked over your whole life, it’s startling to find yourself in someone’s eyes, to be held in their vision, the same way they hold sunsets and beautiful things.”
If anyone ever asks you why you read romance books, tell them to read this book! The perfect escapist summer read, Leylah Attar’s latest gem is everything I’ve come to expect from this incredibly gifted storyteller—evocative, moving, atmospheric, witty, sublimely written—and it’s the kind of story that fills you with delight from the moment you start reading it. Attar transports us to an exotic paradise of sun-kissed beaches and crystal-clear waters, a place where reality looks and feels like a dream, and where a young woman finally finds herself in the arms of a man who makes her feel brave, loved, and weightless in a world that has held her down for too long.
Greatest Slow-Burning Romance | The Best Thing by Mariana Zapata
“I’d remember the next words out of his mouth every day of my life. I would remember them each time I thought I had no idea what I was doing being a mom. Jonah Collins squeezed my hand. That muscular shoulder rolled upward, and he said, in a rough voice, gripping my fingers tight, “What a gift you’ve given me, Lenny.”
l am so in love with this story and the characters, I could read it over and over again and never get tired of it. Brimming with emotion and humour, I can’t tell you what this book is truly all about because of the way the author unveils the storyline and delivers each twist. What I CAN tell you, however, is that I have laughed, cried, hugged my Kindle, and wished there had been another thousand pages of this beautiful book for me to devour. It’s one of those stories that stays with you and calls you back every time you are reminded of it in any way. I have loved pretty much every Mariana Zapata novel I have ever read, but she has outdone herself with this one.
Most Refined Prose | Work for It by Talia Hibbert
“Every time, he looks at me like he knows me. Every time, I wonder if maybe he does—if maybe he snuck in, under my armour, past every icy defence, and embedded himself into some vital part of me. I don’t know if the idea is blissful or terrifying, but I do know every time those dark eyes caress me, and that fine mouth shapes my name, I shiver. And I remember how it felt, to want somebody for the first time in forever.”
I’m not sure what caught me by surprise more—the sensuous, plush prose that simply took my breath away, the emotional depth of the characters, or the intense chemistry between them—but this story is so ‘out of the ordinary’ that every single about it is quite simply extraordinary. Set in a small English village, this is the tale of a beautiful but cynical city boy who escapes to the countryside looking for clarity and a way to gain control over his own life, but ends up falling for a bearish, soft-hearted farmer. And while this is a love story first and foremost, Talia Hibbert does a fine job at showing how mental illness can fester overtime and consume a person when they begin drifting unknowingly into the dark currents of their thoughts. She does so with empathy, authenticity, and a sense of profound optimism that leaves the reader feeling uplifted, hopeful, and maybe even a little enlightened. This is one of those books you’ll never forget, and talk all your friends into reading.
Most Anticipated Book | Kill Switch by Penelope Douglas
“Three years,” I said, seething. “Three. Years. Rika.” I paused, evening out my voice and calming my breathing back to normal. “So, yeah,” I said, mocking her. “You bet your ass I’m gonna hurt her.”
I’ve always had a fondness for moody, well-written characters with a dangerous side, but a full-blown bad boy can make me weak at the knees. And that is just one of the many reasons why this series has been one of the most electrifying sagas I have ever read. Thunder Bay’s most infamous son is back in town, and he’s got only one thing on his mind—getting revenge on the girl who sent him behind bars five years before. Book after book, Penelope Douglas has kept exploring the grey area separating heroes from villains, delving boldly into the inner conflicts of her characters, and pushing the envelope further and further. But this time around, she has not only kept pushing— she unequivocally stomped all over that envelope and then burned it to ashes by delivering a story that is the very definition of an intoxicating page-turner. Douglas’ talent for keeping readers on their toes is on display as ever in this wild, crazy, even chilling at times tale of revenge, atonement, and second chances. And every time you might think to yourself that she won’t go there one way or another, think again—she will and you will love every glorious minute of it.
Greatest Second Chance Romance | Letters to Molly by Devney Perry
“The thing about divorce is, there isn’t always one mistake. One nuclear bomb dropped on a couple that destroys their marriage. Sometimes, it creeps up on you slowly. And one day, realization hits and all you know is that you don’t want to be married anymore.”
When it comes to the romance novel, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a second chances scenario where couples reunite after years spent apart, and while this happens to be one of my favourite tropes, it doesn’t happen all too often that a story feels like a breath of fresh air from the very first page, standing so tall in a genre that is exploding with greatness. Known for her emotional, character-driven romances that give us all the feels, Devney Perry strikes again with a tale that is heartbreaking in its candour and brave in its intent, yet somehow incredibly romantic through and through. And with two very real people at its heart—grappling with obstacles that speak to anyone who’s ever felt the bitter sting of failure and regret in love—this is the kind of book you hope you never forget. Even as your tears keep blurring the pages in front of you.
Most Compelling Characters | The Remaking of Corbin Wale by Roan Parrish
“He had sunk into his love for Corbin with the inevitability of gravity. At unexpected moments, he would see Corbin and be caught breathless at the insistence of his need. When Corbin reached for him, he felt that need like magnets finding their way close enough to snap together.”
One of the most unique stories I have ever read, this book stole my heart from the get-go and I hated myself for not reading it sooner. It’s the tale of a man who moves back to his hometown to re-evaluate his life and take over the family business, only to meet a beautiful, reclusive young man who seems to be lost in his own world. From the way they communicate their feelings for one another, to the gentle romance that develops between them oh-so slowly, there is a dreamy, almost ethereal tone to the story that brings these characters to life, and coupled with Roan Parrish’s studding lyrical writing style, every single thing about this book is extraordinary.
Most Well-Rounded Storyline | Endless Stretch of Blue by Riley Hart
“It was just… them. Damon and Enzo, two men who shared the worst night of their lives and met when they were at their darkest. Two men who showed each other there was still some light left in the world.”
Riley Hart’s slow burn romances are my weakness, but this story stands out as one of her most poignant, remarkable ones to date. Two men linked by a tragic moment in time meet by chance at the lowest points in both their lives, and slowly begin building a tender friendship between them. But somewhere along the way, a spark of attraction catches fire, and they become lovers. With so much pain and guilt weighing them both down, however, they soon realise that love alone can’t fix them, and that they each have to fight for their happily-ever-after. The emotional connection between the characters drives the story forward, and every scene between them is real, intense, utterly electric. A wonderful read.
Most Fascinating Storyline | Repeat by Kylie Scott
“Who are you when all of your formative moments are gone?”
Kylie Scott delivers an utterly unputdownable, unique rendering of true love and second chances—a tale that centres entirely on a heroine with no memory of the past or the man she once loved—showing how much our past experiences truly shape who we are. By delving deep into the rich emotional tapestry of a character who is experiencing all her firsts all over again, Scott crafts one of her loveliest, most touching romances to date, infusing each scene with her effortless, deadpan sense of humour, and balancing oh-so perfectly angst with steamy love scenes. Compulsively readable and compelling, this is the kind of story that leaves you pondering how much of the self actually remains when all memory is lost, and what you would do differently if you had a second chance at your own life.
Most Heart-Warming Romance | Rock Bottom Girl by Lucy Score
“We’d started in the shadows under the bleachers. And here we were, twenty years later, standing in the sun.”
In this playful, romantic romp, Lucy Score reveals a rare gift for writing with an intoxicating combination of wit, humour, and heartfelt emotion, delivering a charming tale of a woman’s quest to find meaning and purpose in her life, all perfectly underscored by a toe-curling romance that leaves you smiling ear to ear. Finding herself homeless, broke, and cheated on at thirty-eight years of age is not something the heroine ever imagined her life would come to, but after two decades of running away from a place that left her with nothing but regrets and bad memories, she has no other option but to return to the hometown she couldn’t escape from fast enough—and to a job that would take her back to the halls of the high school she fought hard to forget. But she never expected to find both her former nemesis and her greatest high school crush still walking those halls, too. It’s funny, it’s charming, it’s impeccably written, and it’s simply one of the best books I’ve read all year.
Most Multilayered Storyline | Tinsel by Devney Perry
“I’ve spent thirty-two years on this planet and have nothing to show for myself other than a no-limit Amex. I am nothing.”
Devney Perry delivers a story that is rare and understatedly breathtaking—a story of two people from very different worlds, both struggling to break free from their families’ expectations of them, while paving their own paths in life. Written with warmth and sensitivity, perfectly paced and splendidly characterised, this is the kind of story that stays with you long after you’ve run out of pages to read, and it’s the kind of book that swallows you whole, going straight for the heart. Perry hits all the right notes with a feelgood story about love, identity, and family, and proves once more that she’s a writer we all need to be reading right now.
Greatest Feel-Good Read | His Royal Highness by R.S. Grey
“To love is to settle, to feel calmed by a lover’s embrace. It’s why people often define home as a person, not a place.”
R.S. Grey puts a fresh spin on the royal romance trope by setting her newest novel in a make-believe kingdom—a fictional theme park known as Fairytale Kingdom, home to Princess Elena, Fairytale Kingdom’s main attraction, and her love interest, His Royal Highness. But, unlike most fairy tales, there are no archetypes in this story, or villains to fight, or evil curses to break for the characters to find their happily-ever-after. This is the story of two very real and relatable people who fall in love with one another by finding home and happiness in each other’s arms. Brimming with Grey’s trademark sense of humour and wit, this light-hearted yet richly crafted tale of love, family, and a woman’s journey of letting go of self-doubt packs an emotional punch even when it’s making us giggle, quickly becoming one of my favourite R.S. Grey romances to date.
Greatest Character Development | Out of the Shade by S.A. McAuley
“Chuck’s chest ached with…want. There was no other way to describe it. He wanted more of this—wanted Jesse completely. And that was where the pain came in. The reality he couldn’t escape from.”
The words “tattooed and pierced sports photographer” might have been the reason why I picked this book up at first, but from page one, it rocked my world. It contains several heavy themes—alcoholism, abuse, self-loathing, anger issues—but it’s not a bleak or dark read at all. Set in a tight-knit community of friends who’ve grown up together, with one of the men belonging to that group, and the other being the ‘new guy’, this is a story of self-discovery, resilience, friendship, and self-acceptance. With such meticulous character development and a wonderfully smooth writing style, it is one of the best written books I’ve read of late, and I missed these characters the moment their story ended. I’m not a huge fan of coming-out scenarios in m/m romances, but this story will forever be the exception.
Greatest Alpha Hero | War of Hearts by Samantha Young (writing as S. Young)
“I hear you have talents, abilities … well, you’re not the only one. I have your scent, Thea Quinn. You’ll never be able to run from me again.”
Paranormal Romances are not really my jam anymore, having spent a good decade reading little else, but I make the rare exception when a story is written by one of my favourite authors. From vampires to werewolves to the mythical fae, Samantha Young (writing as S. Young) deftly weaves together romance with the supernatural, taking us into a magical world cloaked with danger and suspense. A high-octane chase across Europe, this is the story of a young woman on the run—her unusual abilities making her the target of supernaturals and humans alike—and the alpha werewolf sent to catch her. Romantic, thrilling, and brimming with sexual tension, I was swept away from the start and loved every heart-stopping moment of it.
Most Poetic Writing | Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
“Perhaps you can explain it to me, then, how is it fair that my utterly inept cousin is in command of me, for no reason other than that he’s a man, and I’m a woman? How is it fair that I master Latin and Greek as well as any man at Oxford, yet I am taught over a baker’s shop? How is it fair that a man can tell me my brain was wired wrong, when his main achievement in life seems to be his birth into a life of privilege? And why do I have to beg a man to please make it his interest that I, too, may vote on the laws that govern my life every day?”
This beautifully written, über-angsty debut novel is one of the best Historical Romances I have ever read. It’s the tale of a brilliant but impoverished young suffragist and one of the first female students at Oxford University, who falls for a powerful duke with very different views and goals in life. The yearning between the characters is real and palpable, but in the eyes of their peers, they would never be of equal standing, thus a romance between them is doomed from the start. Set against an important historical backdrop of political activism and change, Evie Dunmore delivers a heroine who is selfless, fiercely independent, and principled, and this is so much more than just a story about two people finding their happily-ever-after—it’s also a compelling perspective on what it means to be a woman, a partner, and an equal, both in and out of the bedroom. Simply outstanding.
Most Erotic Romance | Fallen Angel Series by Ella Frank & Brooke Blaine
“Millions of people out there are going to want you because of everything you can give them.”
Halo cupped my cheek with his other hand, and when I was looking him in the eye, he said, “That might be true. But I don’t want a million people. I just want the one who’s already here.”
A steaming cup of scrumptiousness is the perfect way to describe this tasty, three-part morsel from one of my favourite writing duos, and I found myself devouring all three like a woman possessed. From the electric charge of its love scenes, to its most tender moments, this is one of those love stories that consumes you to the point of obsession, taking over your whole life while you’re lost in it, and then leaving you in a happy haze that lingers long past the final page. Ella Frank and Brooke Blaine know how to turn up the heat, delivering scene after scene of intense sexual chemistry between the characters, all the while taking the reader on an utterly romantic, emotional journey as the protagonists explore their feelings for one another. Tantalising and delicious, these books are sure to satiate anyone’s appetite for a well-written, toe-curling erotic romance.
Most Significant Storyline | Someday, Someday by Emma Scott
“Silas Marsh walked straight into that room like the answer to a question I hadn’t known I’d been asking. A strange thought had battered itself around my heart: There he is.”
A beautifully written, poignant tale of two men who’ve had to pay a hefty price in life for who they are, but whose unexpected connection slowly frees them both from their painful pasts, this is an Emma Scott romance you don’t want to miss. When the characters first meet, they are just two people trying hard to keep their own demons at bay, but as a tentative friendship blossoms between them, and then begins to tip towards something more, they are forced to face their deepest fears and fight for happiness. An engaging love story with complex characters and relationships, there is so much to love about this book, and I adored every word.
Most Exhilarating Storyline | Say It Again by Catherine Bybee
“You help everyone. We trust that you’ll be there. When will you trust that we will be here for you?”
“The moment you trust someone to be there is when they leave.”
It only took a hot minute for me to be dazzled by Catherine Bybee’s books when I first discovered them, but it was this series in particular that made me irrevocably fall in love with her storytelling, so seeing it come to an end was nothing short of bittersweet. And while I always expected this heroine’s story to be somewhat different from the rest given what we knew of her backstory, nothing could have prepared me for this fast-paced, high-stakes, globetrotting game of cat and mouse that somehow embodies and outdoes every single thing I’ve come to love about this author’s writing style. Bybee keeps us guessing until the very end in this perfect, edge-of-your-seat finale to a much-loved series, delivering an immensely satisfying ending that truly brings the series to full circle.
Greatest Banter | Top Secret by Sarina Bowen & Elle Kennedy
“This entire time, I’ve been sexting with my goddamn frat brother. Worse, the frat brother who’s running against me in the presidential election. The frat brother I can’t stand.”
I’ve been breathlessly waiting for this book from the moment I got whiff of the news that two of my favourite authors were collaborating again on a male/male romance, but it only took a few pages for me to become utterly obsessed with it. Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy’s latest offering is a wonderfully delicious romp that grabs you from the start and leaves you torn between wanting to devour the whole book in a single sitting and not wanting it to end, ever. A sizzling tale of sexual adventure and discovery, with the added bonus of an enemies-turned-lovers subplot, this is the kind of intoxicating reading experience that I’d recommend savouring for as long as you can. Preferably uninterrupted.