I read a lot of romance novels, bouncing around between historicals and contemporaries, often reading sports-themed ones, getting stuck on a single author deep diving into their oeuvre, never really paying attention to when a book was written (though, of course, there are books/authors I seek out and pre-order and wait for without any ounce of patience).
Below is my list of the best romance novels of 2014 but there is absolutely nothing about this list or my own reading of romance novels that are comprehensive (and this is a different list than if I listed my favorite books that I read in 2014; I stuck to the requirement that they had to be published this year). And so to help round out my subjective taste, what were YOUR favorite romance novels of 2014? Please tell us in comments. This request is incredibly selfish on my part: I want to add them to my to-read list and I’ll get to them in 2015.
I’ve never read anything by Milan that wasn’t well done. But her entire Brother Sinisters series, though, of which The Suffragette Scandal is a part, is particularly wonderful.
The book is about a woman named Frederica “Free” Marshall is the Owner and Editrix-in-Chief of the Women’s Free Press, a newspaper “By women—for women—about women.” And when she is targeted by an aristocrat who is angry that she spurned his sexual advances, Edward Clark arrives to help her because he knows that aristocrat and happens to dislike him very much. She remains singularly independent even as she falls in love with Clark, and he learns how to love her on her terms.
I wrote about the heart of the book when I reviewed it earlier this year: “While the book is ostensibly about Free, it is really about all women who speak out about inequality, sexism, and social injustice, women who push boundaries. It is also about, then, the very annoying and sometimes dangerous things that women have endured for centuries for the mere act of daring to speak.” And so, the relationship between the two characters left me thinking, “What person who spends their days fighting injustice doesn’t want a partner — in whatever sense: a lover, a friend, a co-worker, a parent — who will help them carry thimbles [of water] so that they can nurture the gardens they love so dearly?”
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Rai’s A Gentleman in the Street is not just one of my favorite romances from 2014 but that I’ve ever read. It begins with this sentence: “Akira Mori was partial to a certain kind of man: the kind you fucked raw and dirty until your voice was hoarse and your skin slick with sweat.” Mori owns a series of international night clubs. She is powerful, smart, sexy, and independent billionaire, and she really likes to have sex. But also, she’s been lusting after her former stepbrother, Jacob Campbell, ever since their parents were married for a single year over twelve years ago. She doesn’t know that he, too, has been lusting after her. She responds to it by “laugh[ing] and taunt[ing] and outrageously flirt[ing] to the point of irritation.” His defense mechanism is to never touch her.
Then she flirts just enough and he touches her. The chemistry is explosive. The journey they go through trying to figuring out if they want to have a relationship and what that would look like is both incredibly hot and frustrating. This book is classified as an “erotic romance” and it lives up to its genre.
The biggest compliment I can give any novel: I read every single word of this novel and I loved every single one of them.
In Looking for Trouble, Sophie Heyer is a librarian who works hard to blend in, to never makes waves, to be appear in every way to be a good (in all definitions of the word) woman. A big reason Sophie is so careful to be good is that twenty-five years ago, her mother (married to Sophie’s father) ran away with Alex Bishop’s father (married to Alex’s mother), and the town had blamed Sophie’s mother: “If they’d run off, if they’d abandoned their children and spouses…Well, sometimes men did things like that. But women? That just wasn’t natural. It wasn’t right. Dorothy Heyer hadn’t been right. And Sophie wasn’t right either. She just made sure that no one else knew that.” And the way Sophie isn’t “right”? She likes to have dirty, dirty sex. When she decides she wants to have dirty, dirty sex with Alex Bishop and he with her, well, that’s when things get interesting.
The sex in this book is incredible. Dahl is a master at writing breathtaking sex scenes (I hold her and Rai in the same esteem in this regard). But the book tugs at your heart. You so want Sophie to let go of the pain that has kept her true self tucked away under the veneer of the good librarian, the opposite of what people imagine her mother to have been. You want Alex to stop running from his imperfect, difficult family, and to really see Sophie in all her glory and to decide that she is more than worth it. The ending does not disappoint.
I loved Playing It Close so much that as soon as I finished it, I downloaded every Kat Latham work available. In Playing It Close, Tess Chambers is escaping a tabloid frenzy after she was sexually harassed at work and blogged about it. Liam Callaghan is a star rugby player who is trying to recover from his mother’s death. Both decide to escape to an eco-lodge in Venezuela, where they lie to each other about their identities (though Tess recognizes Liam but chooses not to tell him: “if he was going to make up a name, she might as well, too.”). Then they have one hot night of sex, she disappears, and they meet again in London when she turns out to work for his financially-struggling rugby team’s main financial sponsor. He’s angry at her, she’s trying to avoid another workplace scandal, and they can’t stay away from one another.
I enjoyed everything about Tess and Liam, including learning more about rugby. But my favorite scene is when Liam insults football/soccer players by calling them a “bunch of little girls.” Tess immediately calls him on it, saying, “I get a bit annoyed when men assume that girl is an insult.” He apologizes! It’s such a brilliant, beautiful fantasy world with a fantastical rugby star who listens and learns from being called on his misogyny. Here for it.
This book is so beautiful, so dazzling it’s hard to describe it in a way that does it justice. Sherry Thomas is one of my all-time favorite romance novelists and I will forever read anything she writes. But My Beautiful Enemy exists in its own space.
The book opens in 1891 in London. Catherine Blade, “the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese courtesan and an English adventurer who had died before she was born,” has arrived on a personal mission (no spoiler alerts here). She continually runs into her former lover and beloved, British captain Leighton Atwood, who is now engaged to be married. They had known each other briefly in 1883 in China and Turkmenistan, when they both were spies for competing powers and where they fell deeply in love. Thomas flashbacks to that time, showing us how the two met, how they committed to each other, how political intrigue pulled them apart, and how they came to be separated eight years. When Leighton met Catherine, she was dressed as a man. Later, when she asks how he would describe their relationship to his family, he tells her, “That I have met a girl with the strength of steel, the cunning of a desert fox, and the beauty of the sky.” She replies, “You have read a great deal of poetry.” He says, “Well, I thought I had better educate myself, since I could never rival you in brute masculinity.”
The story is painfully beautiful. But it is beautiful. How Thomas describes the love between her two protagonists: “They made love with infinite care, because they were fragile. But they also made love with infinite ferocity, because they were indomitable. And together they were stronger yet.” Perfection.
I don’t love all Julie Brannagh books but I loved Covering Kendall. Kendall Tracy, the titular character, is the general manager of the rival team to quarterback Drew McCoy’s NFL team. But on a rainy evening in Seattle, they find themselves together at a bookstore, the chemistry is overwhelming, and after a dash to her hotel room, they almost have sex. Then she realizes who he is, reminds herself who she is, and stops them.
But dammit if they don’t love being around each other and they can’t seem to keep away from each other, despite the risk and the distance. They are likable and you can’t help by root for them. It’s one of those romances where the two characters are so clearly inevitable that you mainly want to see how the author is going to get these two characters to a happily ever after.
Plus, there’s an A+ minor storyline where Kendall has to deal with a player accused of domestic violence and she gets it right in a way that is particularly satisfying in this year of all years.
In Detand’s Pull Me Under, famous British soccer player Ben Jimmer accidentally outs himself to a journalist. To help lessen the speculation in the media and any possible tension in the locker room, he pretends to be in a long-term, committed relationship with Henry Brown. As you would expect, the pretending leads to hot sex and eventually love for Ben and Henry.
I found this book incredibly compelling and just kept thinking that the storytelling felt authentic. I believed in these characters. And I loved Zetand’s writing, which kept me so interested that when the 360-page book ended, I wished there were 360 more pages to read.
If you take me up on reading The Hook Up and start reading, KEEP GOING. I find the first few chapters of this angsty college drama to be just so-so. But there’s a moment when the smart and smart-mouthed Anna Jones allows the Heisman-winning, National-Championship-team-leader star quarterback Drew Baylor over to her apartment for their second hook up. They start to click beyond just the intense, lust-filled chemistry they’ve had from the beginning. And they start to really like each other beyond just their clever, quick verbal sparring (their back and forths are endlessly fun to read, though).
I find them both so likable. I enjoy watching them become a couple even if it is frustrating. The book maybe goes on too long, one plot twist too far. And while I don’t for my life believe two seniors in college could have such creative, hot sex, I’m still here for the creative, hot sex scenes. All of this combines for a compelling, engaging read.
This list should indicate at least one thing: I love to read sports romances. They combine two of my favorite things. Then Crowley comes along, not only gives me a romance novel involving my favorite sport (tennis!) but she has the sports star of her novel be a woman, a rare treat.
In Love In Straight Sets, Regan Hunter is a spoiled woman, battling at the top of women’s singles competition. She needs a new coach but it’s been hard to find one because Regan is no fun to coach. Along comes Ben Percy, who once won a grand slam but has since left the sport. Looking for a way back in, he’s willing to deal with Regan. Then they begin to fall for each other and each are better for it.
I’ll admit: I went in skeptical and for the first chapter or so, I was worried because Regan is so unlikable. But I bought the whole thing. I bought them as a couple, I bought her change, I bought his anger, I bought it all.
Plus, there’s this amazing scene towards the end when Regan checks out the box in which Ben keeps whatever it is he uses when he gets himself off. In it, she finds magazines that feature images of her playing tennis. She says to him, in disbelief, “But there aren’t even any bikini pictures in here. Just me scowling, hitting balls.” So she asks, “You jerks off to photos of me looking like an angry bitch?” And immediately says, “I jerk off to photos of you looking strong and confident and unstoppable.” Ben, y’all.
I very recently reviewed this trilogy of erotic historical romance novellas but I’m happy to unload even more words of praise for Lee’s Princess Shanyin stories. It’s a darkly rich, emotionally-stirring story of a woman who starts off as a princess in imperial China with her own harem of enslaved male lovers but becomes a journey as she fights for her survival and falls in love with a man she cannot have. At one point, acknowledging the deep relationship she has with Chu Yuan, the man she loves, Shanyin narrates, “There was truly fate between us. But fate was not enough to keep two people together or grant them happiness.”
It is not a happy story, though it does have an ending that leaves you satisfied and relieved for her. And while it’s incredibly sexy and there are many amazing sex scenes, the erotica is used to explain the characters, to push the story, and to give the readers a larger context for the world in which all of this takes place. It’s the first erotic romance by Jeannie Lin writing under the name of Liliana Lee and I hope there are many more to come.
(Featured photo from cover of Alisha Rai’s A Gentleman In The Streets}