SOME OF MY FAVOURITE PICKS FROM 2020
It’s been a year of many challenges, of far more downs than ups, but it’s thankfully also been a year of outstanding new books, and never have we needed fiction to inspire, uplift, or offer escape more than this past year. From the Golden Age of Piracy of the late seventeenth century to the Victorian Era to a modern-day viewpoint, from fearless lady pirates to passionate suffragists to young women leaving their whole lives behind to follow their hearts—the only thing all my 2020 reads had in common is great writing, rich plots, and nuanced, compelling characters. And kissing, lots of kissing…with one rare but truly extraordinary exception. So I hope you enjoy this little trip down my reading memory lane and that you find YOUR next great read here.
Happy reading, book junkies! ♡
Most Thought-Provoking Story | Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
“They say that a person’s personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn’t true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we’d never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.”
It only figures that one of loveliest, most thought-provoking books I read this year would not even have any kissing in it. A failed bank robbery turns into a comical hostage stalemate at an open house, but when the hostages are eventually released, the robber is nowhere to be found. Through police interviews and flashbacks, we get to know not only the quirky hostages, but also the two policemen trying to solve the case, and as more and more puzzle pieces curiously fit together, we realise that nothing is what it seems. We begin to piece together a breathtaking tale of life, love, death, marriage, parenthood, and compassion. Packed with both moments of laugh-out-loud humour and heart-piercing honesty, I found myself having to put this book down more than once, desperate to fully absorb each scene and process the sheer genius of it all. Fredrik Backman is a true wonder, a brilliant storyteller and a keen observer of human nature, and this book is the rarest of gems. And the audiobook is simply stellar.
Most Romantic Storyline | Everyday History by Alice Archer
“Ruben, my force of nature, undoes me, stuns me, demolishes my resistance. I feel scrubbed clean and windblown, as though I’ve weathered a hurricane and come away giddy and grateful to be alive. He’s put every dream I pushed off the table right into my hands. I get to belong.”
You know that book that you can’t stop thinking about? The one you find yourself breathlessly and incoherently recommending to anyone willing to listen? The one you wish you could read all over again for the very first time? This is that book for me. One of the most spellbinding, profound, beautifully told romances I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, this is the kind of story that stays with you, moves you, changes something in you—and it has everything to do with Alice Archer’s glorious prose. A breathlessly romantic tale of courage and growth, of patience and trust, of tender melancholy and wild abandonment, a story like this forces us to consider the world around us with a greater sense of understanding and empathy, and it shows us how important it is to share our own story because we never know how much of an impact it could have on someone else.
The One That Made Me Ugly-Cry | Sea of Ruin by Pam Godwin
“Love isn’t a decision. It arrives unannounced, breeds madness, and leaves a sea of ruin in its wake.”
From the sandy shores of South Carolina to the Caribbean islands to the high seas, and set during the eighteenth-century’s Golden Age of Piracy, this book is unlike anything I’ve ever read in my life. It’s both a rip-roaring pirate adventure—packed with action and jaw-dropping twists on every page—and an all-consuming romance that oh-so perfectly captures the angst and drama of its unique setting, but every single part of it is utterly marvellous. Like the lapping waves of the sea, Pam Godwin’s seductive prose lulls the reader into submission with its lyricism and vivid imagery, only to then jolt us with the unexpected, time and time again, weaving a story that never stops knocking the wind out of us. If I had to recommend one book this year, it would be this one, and it has everything to do with a lady pirate named Bennett Sharp.
Most Well-Rounded Storyline | Beach Read by Emily Henry
“I’ll help you lean into your latent nihilism, and you’ll teach me how to sing like no one’s listening, dance like no one’s watching, and love like I’ve never been hurt before.”
With a deceivingly simple premise at its core—a romance author and a literary fiction writer swapping genres for the summer to break out of their writing ruts—this is the kind of story that packs an emotional punch even in its softest moments, flourishing as it unfolds, and just like its two leads, manages to be both romantic and reflective, and even sharp and biting in parts. In this marvellous tale of love, family, and overcoming grief, Emily Henry captures so much of the human experience in a brutally honest and beautiful way, infusing her characters with both resilience and vulnerability, with both light and darkness, and by showing us that no matter how one chooses to see the world—through rose-coloured glasses or by needing to delve into the deepest, darkest corners of the human mind in order to understand the world a little better—life doesn’t have to be one big happily-ever-after. It can be an endless string of happy moments that continue to shape us and push us to keep moving forward.
Greatest Sexual Chemistry | Not What I Expected by Jewel E. Ann
“I hate not being able to love the right man but falling so hard for the wrong one.”
Jewel E. Ann’s novels are a special brand of magic and this book is to die for. It’s the story of a young widow who, after twenty-two years of marriage and raising four kids, finds herself desperately looking for something real in her life again. Enter a much younger, very handsome new business owner in town who not only threatens the livelihood of the heroine’s family store, but also pursues her relentlessly from the moment they meet. And while their attraction is undeniable, their views on marriage and life in general are very different. A beautifully written, impossible-to-put-down tale of life, love, relationships, and of belonging to no-one but yourself.
Most Provocative Storyline | The Lord I Left by Scarlett Peckham
“She wanted a man who wanted her affection and her lust. Not a lover whose judgment—of her or of himself—she had to fear when morning came.”
I can’t even describe what a fan I am of Scarlett Peckham’s magnificent Secrets of Charlotte Street series, and while I couldn’t wait for Henry Evesham’s book, I honestly wasn’t sure whether I’d connect with a hero who’s a pious evangelical reformer in the context of a love story. But I should have never doubted this author’s gift for delivering a beautifully crafted story that feels authentic and emotionally engaging, no matter what the premise happens to be. A hot virgin minister, a very outspoken sex worker, a snowstorm that traps them together for days… Ah, you can cut the sexual angst with a knife! Absolutely stellar start to finish.
Most Heart-Clenching Scenes | Quarter Miles by Devney Perry
“Why was letting him go so hard? Why couldn’t he love me back?”
So much of romance is about desire, about yearning to be loved and wanted, but there is something tragically beautiful, and utterly gripping to me, about tales of a love that is not returned. The achy, melancholy heartbreak of loving someone who would never love you back, only to discover that that love is not as one-sided as it appears, is perfect fodder for the romantic in all of us, and Devney Perry does the unrequited love trope justice with the story of two best friends who find themselves on a road trip of a lifetime—one desperately trying to exorcise her feelings for the only man she’s ever loved, and the other finally coming to terms with the way he’s always felt for his best friend. Full of sexual tension and angst, and even a touch of family drama, this book is really about a woman who’s learning not to run from her fears, and that’s a message that we all need to hear.
Most Refined Prose | The Infinite Onion by Alice Archer
“Connection isn’t a cold poke to the center with a dagger, but a gentle peel with a warm hand over time.”
There are writers whose prose is so vivid and so emotionally resonant, that you might briefly forget you’re reading a work of fiction, and while Alice Archer has already proven that her hand is as elegant as it is masterful, her newest novel continues to show real insight into the human soul. An eye-opening exploration of the profoundly visceral relationship between a person’s past and present, this is the tale of two men whose chance encounter ends up being the lifeline they both so desperately needed to make a change. Archer builds their story slowly, with beautiful language and setting, lovingly weaving her sentences into a powerful tapestry of emotion that holds the reader captive through and through. She’s a poet at heart, a born storyteller, and I can’t shout this book’s praises loud enough.
Most Anticipated Book | Wild at Heart by K.A. Tucker
“I need you in my life like I need to fly. Like I need this Alaskan air. More than I need this air.”
Some books embed themselves in your heart from the very first page, the unexpected beauty of them taking your breath away time and time again, and The Simple Wild continues to be one of the most understatedly beautiful stories I’ve ever read, affecting in a way that it never stops making me want to read it again. So when a sequel was announced, I was filled with both delight and trepidation, knowing that a sequel rarely measures up to the original. But from the moment we step into Calla Fletcher’s shoes again, we are reminded of what a stellar storyteller K.A. Tucker truly is, capable of delivering not only a worthy continuation of a most beloved story, but somehow also matching oh-so perfectly the freshness of the first book. It’s the age-old tale of a woman leaving her whole life behind to follow her heart, only to learn that a relationship cannot survive on love alone, but what makes this novel sing is the honesty and reality with which the characters are portrayed at every step. Moving and clearly written with love, K.A. Tucker has truly outdone herself with a story that’s all about taking a chance on the right person, while never losing yourself in them.
Greatest Series Finale | Daring and the Duke by Sarah MacLean
“It’s always been you. Every day. Every night. Every minute. Since the beginning.”
As we return one last time to the dark, criminal underworld of Sarah MacLean’s nineteenth-century London with what is nothing short of a subversive feminist masterpiece that gloriously demolishes sexist tropes and stereotypes, we are reminded once more what a rare gem in the Historical Romance genre this author truly is. A rapturous tale of redemption, forgiveness, and second chances, Sarah MacLean’s writing hums with yearning and desire, but it is the innate strength of her leading female character—a woman in full control of her destiny—and the willingness of the hero to redeem himself at all costs that sets this story apart. Part tale of second chances, part holy grail of grovel romance novels, and one hundred percent the most satisfying, angst-filled ending to a much-beloved series—when it comes to Historical Romances, it simply doesn’t get any better than this.
Most Compelling Characters | Queen Move by Kennedy Ryan
“It hasn’t been years. There has only been one long day for us on which the sun has never set. We were never lost, and this place has always been waiting for our wandering hearts, for our prodigal souls to finally, together rest.”
There’s nothing like a great romance novel to cancel out the incessant noise inside and outside of our heads these days, but as it is always the case with Kennedy Ryan’s offerings, a romance is never just a romance, and her every word is imbued with a breathless sense of purpose and hope. Friendship, love, and second chances may be the bedrock of the story, but there is more to this story than two childhood best friends finding each other again and rekindling what they once had. A fervent celebration of perseverance and self-determination, this is the tale of a woman forging her own trailblazing path in life, and doing it on her own terms. It’s complicated, it’s messy, it’s bittersweet, it’s beautiful, it’s unflinchingly real, but a story about love is rarely black and white, and every single second of it is just as it should be. The beauty of Kennedy Ryan’s books is not just in her striking prose or the thoughtful precision with which she skewers some deeply knotted truths—it’s also in the way her very essence seeps through her words, spellbinding us page after page, and delivering a poignant tale of love, of history, of legacy, and of a hopeful future.
Most Heart-Warming Romance | Better Than People by Roan Parrish
“Animals didn’t make him feel self-conscious. They didn’t make him feel like he was drowning. They gave and never required anything of him except kindness.”
Known for giving us romances brimming with compassion, courage, and unwavering optimism, Roan Parrish’s acute observation of human nature and the world around her keeps showing not only in the insightful language of every one of her beautiful tales, but also in the depth and distinctiveness of her characters. In her latest novel, she captures so clearly the deep, paralysing quicksand of shyness and social anxiety, and she does so with a touch that is both gentle and capable of hitting you right in the gut. I have never found a single false note in anything I have ever read by Roan Parrish, yet her latest offering still managed to leave me breathless with wonder.
Most Evocative Setting | The Truest Thing by Samantha Young
“You’re supposed to hate me. It’s for the best. But I hate that you hate me.”
Samantha Young takes us back to the quaint little coastal town of Hartwell, Delaware with a secret love story spanning a decade as two unlikely lovers discover they’re meant for each other. We finally find out how the town’s shy bookstore owner ended up falling for the mysterious son of Hartwell’s most ruthless villain, and even though theirs is a story that is riddled with ups and downs, with heartbreak and misunderstandings, they continue to find ways to lean on each other, to help one another, and to make each other stronger over the years. I loved how effortlessly the author weaves their story into all the ones that came before theirs, making these characters feel utterly vital to the series as a whole.
Greatest Feel-Good Read | Happily Letter After by Vi Keeland & Penelope Ward
“When someone comes along and makes you feel butterflies, you need to chase them.”
This might have been my very first read from this über-talented duo, but it was immediately followed by several more from their backlist. With such a unique storyline, fabulous writing, so much emotion on every single page, and even a few unexpected twists and turns, every single thing about this book was perfect. In very broad strokes, it’s the story of a magazine columnist who suddenly starts receiving ‘Dear Santa’ letters from a little girl she’s never met. Fast forward to a few months later and, in a case of mistaken identity, the columnist finds herself training the little girl’s dog in a language she doesn’t even speak just to stay in her life a little longer. Add the sexy single dad into the equation and you’ve got a story that is pure delight from start to finish.
Greatest Character Development | All Scot and Bothered by Kerrigan Byrne
“Her brightness has always come from within. She looks into the darkness, and smiles. She was—she is—like a flower forever starved for rain. If you show her one drop of kindness, of love, she will bloom for you. But what you cannot do, Lord Ramsay, is ask an exotic orchid to be an English rose.”
By consistently delivering tales that are anchored by fiery, resilient, unapologetically brazen heroines, Kerrigan Byrne continues to reach new depths in her portrayal of women who are unwilling to let anyone else dictate their own destiny, and this book is no exception. It’s the story of a young mathematician whose scandalous inheritance makes her the target of a man who’s made it his mission to close down all of London’s most notorious dens of vice, but their attraction burns far brighter than their immediate differences, and as danger begins to stir, they must work together to bring their enemy into the light. Byrne infuses her characters with self-awareness and agency, gently probing questions of patriarchy and internalized misogyny in them, thus delivering a tale that remains true to its characters while also dazzling with its romantic plot and sensuous writing.
Most Multilayered Storyline | When You Come Back To Me by Emma Scott
“I made you lonely while we were still together, when my stupid fears and self-doubt kept us in hiding. I’m so sorry for that, Holden. You deserve to be loved out loud.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about this book for weeks after I finished reading it. It’s the story of two young men who are complete opposites, but whose very differences are what draws them to one another at first. One is the star quarterback of his high school football team—popular, wholesome, selfless, but living a lie—and the other is a dichotomy of sorts—brilliant but broken; filthy rich but craving the simplest of comforts, a family; confident but convinced to be undeserving of love. Their story spans half a decade, and during that time we watch them not only fall in love, but also inspire change in one another, overcome traumas, take ownership of their own lives, and every step along the way is bittersweet, but earned and beautiful. It’s the kind of story that punches you right in the gut more than once, but it’s just perfect for these characters and their journey to one another.
Greatest Second Chance Romance | Rifts and Refrains by Devney Perry
“You set me free once, Graham. You let me fly. Now I’m coming home.”
A hopeful, heartfelt tale that shows it’s never too late to rewrite one’s own story, or give true love a second chance. After years of chasing her dreams and clawing her way to the top of the music scene, the heroine returns to her childhood home and to the man she left behind, forcing her to confront all she thought she had to give up in order to live life on her own terms. The bulk of this novel focuses on the stark reality of a relationship that would require one of the characters to capitulate to the other for them to find their happily-ever-after, and Devney Perry excels, as always, at bringing forth a satisfying compromise by pushing her characters into uncomfortable spaces and granting them room to grow, to learn from their past actions, and power to rechart their lives. A tale of dreams chased and loves lost, of wounds healed and loves found, Perry proves in spades that she can spin any story into gold.
Greatest Alpha Hero | What You See by Cherise Sinclair
“Frankie, beauty isn’t restricted to two dimensions. It encompasses more than high cheekbones and perfect hair. When your eyes, possibly the loveliest eyes I’ve ever seen, hold laughter, everyone around you smiles. When they hold sadness, you take everyone with you.”
The third book in Cherise Sinclair’s captivating Sons of the Survivalist series is the story of a young woman who comes to Alaska to save her best friend and her son from the grips of a fanatical militia group, only to end up falling in love with a protective, Alaskan mountain of man who shows her everything that has been missing in her life thus far. Cherise Sinclair is a master of characterization, her intense attention to detail bringing her characters to life in a way that they always feel authentic, believable, and easy to relate to. Romantic, suspenseful, and richly atmospheric, this book swept me off my feet, and I missed it the moment I finished reading it.
Most Fascinating Storyline | Nightfall by Penelope Douglas
“What do you think was the only thing that made me keep breathing? In my brain, I reached for you. I never stopped reaching for you.”
This has been one of the most electrifying sagas I have ever read, and the final instalment in the Devil’s Night series did not disappoint. The whole series comes full circle with Will’s story—a story of second chances and forgiveness—and my heart didn’t stop pounding from the first page. We finally meet the woman who has owned Will Grayson’s heart since they were teenagers—the very same woman whose actions sent him and his friends to prison years before—and we meet her as she wakes up at Blackchurch, a secluded mansion in in the middle of nowhere, used by the wealthy and powerful to either hide or discipline their misbehaving sons. Part dark psychological thriller, part erotic romance, Emory and Will’s story is not for the faint of heart. As always, Penelope Douglas pushes her characters to the limit, forcing them to walk a fine line between mayhem and madness, and the result is as unexpected as it is exhilarating. There are scenes you will never forget, and there are scenes that will make you squirm in your seat, but every single word will make you feel. The perfect finale to a superb series.
Most Erotic Romance | The Pool Boy by Nikki Sloane
“I haven’t had sex in a long time. You don’t want to get within striking distance of me.”
Sometimes a single book is all it takes to get your reading mojo back, and this was exactly the jolt I so desperately needed at the time. And while age-gap romances are a personal favourite of mine, and I’ve known for a while now that no one does steam like Nikki Sloane, I should have known better than to think that a sexy, fun little romance is all I’d find behind this mouthwatering cover. With fully fleshed-out characters and a surprising amount of depth to every single aspect of this story, the author delivers a truly satisfying reading experience that grabs you from the get-go. I smiled like a goof throughout it, loving every delicious morsel of it.
Most Significant Storyline | A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore
“It takes a brave man to want a woman who wants rather than needs him.”
Just like its marvellous predecessor in the series, Bringing Down the Duke, this novel is set against an important historical backdrop of political activism and change in Britain—the women’s suffrage movement—and it offers a compelling perspective on what it truly means to be equal partners in life, both in and out of the bedchamber. The true beauty of this story, to me, however, lies in the fact that besides its fiercely feminist subplot, it’s really about a woman who learns that, despite what the world has told her all her life, being opinionated and outspoken does not make her any less worthy of being loved and treasured by a good man. Like her heroine, Evie Dunmore blends the passion, spirit, and progressive idealism of the time with a love story that is hopeful and grounded, delivering another unputdownable romance that leaves us wanting more.
Most Exhilarating Storyline | Kiss of Vengeance by Samantha Young (writing as S. Young)
“Eternity isn’t a gift, Rose. You’ll realize that soon enough.”
“Eternity wasn’t a gift for you because you’ve spent the last three centuries without me.”
Myths, legends, and folk lore are brought to life in Samantha Young’s seductive True Immortality series, as she spins another spellbinding tale set in this fantastical new world with the story of a young woman who finds herself the target of a two-thousand-year-old vendetta. By never taking her foot off the gas, Young delivers the kind of action-packed page-turner that both grips you like an undertow and cuts straight to the heart, and every second of it is just perfect. Regardless of whether paranormal romance is your jam, regardless of whether this is your first or tenth novel from this terrific author, do yourself a favour and dive into this series as soon as you can. You’ll thank me later.
Greatest Slow-Burning Romance | Hard Knox by Riley Hart
“My dad hadn’t loved me enough to really give a shit about me, to accept me. My ex had cheated on me. But Knox…Knox was choosing me, changing his world for me, loving me.”
In this slow-burning romance between the new guy in town looking for a fresh start in life and the gorgeous lumberjack, divorcee, and dad of two, the characters start off as friends, their friendship evolving slowly and surprising them both at how quickly they begin to care deeply for one another. Somewhere along the way, their simmering attraction flares into true passion and they become so much more to each other. But the sexy lumberjack has never been with a guy before, and when things become complicated, they must decide whether what they’ve found in each other is worth fighting for. I loved these characters, I loved the way Riley Hart builds the trust and the attraction between them simultaneously, never making one appear less important than the other, and I loved the raw emotion coming off the pages in practically every single scene. There is a reason I am always in the mood for a Riley Hart romance.
Most Epic World-Building | From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L. Armentrout
“I hope you realize that no matter what anyone has ever told you, you are more worthy than anyone I’ve ever met.”
There’s been so much talk about this series, and rightfully so, because Jennifer Armentrout has woven a truly fantastical new world for us that is fascinating, singular, and marvellously unexpected from the get-go. In this gripping tale of resilience and survival, the protagonist is a young woman who’s been forced onto a path that was never her choice, only to become entangled in a maze of secret agendas and deadly twists at every turn. As a centuries-old war between two powerful kingdoms begins to heat up again, everything she thought she knew is suddenly called into question, including her own heart. I just know that this whole series is going to be a wild ride start to finish.
Most Unique Storyline | The F List by Alessandra Torre
“Years ago, I craved the approval and attention. Now, as my fame grew and my unhappiness lingered, I was beginning to understand it would never be enough—for them or me. It was like pouring water into a cup riddled with holes.”
With countless young people around the world broadcasting their personal lives each day in hopes of acquiring internet fame, and countless others pursuing fame as a profession, this story couldn’t be more relevant or rousing. A thoughtful yet provocative portrayal of celebrity culture, social media influencers, and what it takes to become ‘internet-famous’, this novel is simply unputdownable. Part tell-all memoir, part exposé, part slow-burning romance between two celebrity nemeses, this is the story of one young woman’s rise from shy, insecure wallflower to overnight internet sensation with millions of followers tracking her every step. But it is also so much more than that. It’s an unflinching and honest reflection on life as a modern-day internet celebrity, showing real insight into the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the fake of living life in the public spotlight. Alessandra Torre dazzles with her writing style, her writing taut and crisp as always, and at a time when I couldn’t even read a recipe without my mind drifting off half way through, I devoured this book in a single sitting, smiling cover to cover.
Greatest Banter | The Roommate by Rosie Danan
“Look. I don’t have delusions of grandeur, but at this point in my life, I’ve made it my singular mission to help women get off more and better. Your existence as an outlier throws off the entire curve.”
What a joy this book was to read! A fun, bantery, oh-so sexy friends-to-lovers tale between an uptight East Coast socialite and the stranger she ends up sharing a house with. Sparks fly between them while their budding friendship only grows, leading them to launch a sexy start-up together to teach women to own their desires, but a venture between a respectable socialite who is trying to avoid scandals and a sex performer could risk a lot more than just their hearts. I adored this book, these characters, the writing style, and cannot wait to read more from this author.