Reading in 2020
by Julie C. Day
This is the year of stay-at-home. Since March, like many others, I’ve worked from home, exercised from home, visited with friends from home, and marked so much damn time from home that it seems like I’m on almost constant standby. For someone who leans into routine and compartmentalization, the always-at-home of 2020 has been a heavy jackboot against my neck, which is how we arrive at the topic of this post: books.
Two of the lessons taught by 2020: I’ve learned to drink homemade hot chocolate and to stay up after everyone else in the house goes to bed—alone-time finally unearthed. Even so—much like in my childhood— incessant reading of books is my greatest comfort. Most days, there’s a dark shadow pulsating against my heart, attempting to spread. Comfort books are my antidote. Now, I adore books with line-level brilliance. Experimental story structures are the equivalent of ten-year-old me watching a fireworks display. And then there are the stories themselves, surprising journeys are what my reading brain lives for—at least in a usual year. But this year has been different. This has been the year of that return to my childhood book-a-day habit. And the year of the romance novel. I find myself unable to commit to any novel that doesn’t promise I’ll be held and comforted. So instead of my usual tumble into new and unexpected, I’ve tumbled through countless romance subgenres, mapping an entire ecosystem of words. Below is a highlights reel of the type of romance novels that really called to me.
Please note: Make sure your reading experience is a happy one and read content warnings regarding sexual content. Not all of us want to read the same sorts of scenes or books. Also note, this is an off-the-cuff list based on what I happened to read and the authors who grabbed my interest, not a survey of the genre.
· Stories that are body positive, sex positive, or age positive
If it breaks the sadly unexamined mold some authors choose—stereotypically beautiful woman and (slightly or more) older stereotypically beautiful man—I’ll at least give the book a test spin. Give me people who connect rather than types that connect. Give me people period. Even in the romance novel universe, it’s people and their flawed and varied humanity that demands my attention…that plus the easy escapism my current home-bound-life demands.
o Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean (M/F curvy-heroine historical romance)
o Someone to Remember by Mary Balogh (M/F older heroine historical romance)
o 40-Love by Olivia Dade (M/F older-curvy-heroine age-gap romance)
· Stories with neurodiverse protagonists
These books tend to be lovely, in part because the author has put some thought into characters and how they would relate. The story arc may be comfortingly predictable, but the time spent with these individuals is never boilerplate.
o A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert (M/F interracial romance)
o The Madness of Lord Ian McKenzie by Jennifer Ashley (M/F historical romance)
o The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (M/F #ownvoices multiracial romance)
· Queer romances in historical fiction
Queer folk weren’t birthed by the twentieth century, but most historical romances, while taking all sorts of liberties with what is realistic for the time period, erase the queer experience. There is something incredibly freeing about imagining NB, gay, lesbian, and all the other aspects of queer in these faux Victorian or Regency settings. Escapism is flying high with interesting people in what, right now, feels like a simpler, less scary world.
o The Lawrence Brown Affair by Cat Sebastian (M/M neurodiverse romance)
o Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian (sex-positive NB/M romance)
o A Seditious Affair by K. J. Charles (M/M BDSM romance)
o The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter by K. J. Charles (trans F/M asexual romance novelette)
For Real by Alexis Hall (M/M contemporary
age-gap BDSM romance)
Yeah, it doesn’t exactly fit, but I had to throw this one somewhere. My first Alexis Hall read, and his writing is so damn good.
· Feminist (and what I’ll call feminist-lite) takes on historical romances
Yeah, after exploring the many branches of romance, it’s delightful to read stories that tie tropes without using them as an excuse to make woman passive, weak, or limited. These are escapist stories. Of course, they are. Much like with queer historical romances, the idea that feminism breaks what is otherwise an accurate portrayal is nonsense. Give me a chance to overcome hurdles by shadowing a strong woman, or two, or three.
o A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas (M/F Lady Sherlock romance)
o Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore (M/F romance)
o The Proposition by Judith Ivory (M/F romance)
o The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan (M/F curvy-heroine romance)
o The Governess Game by Tessa Dare (M/F romance)
o Flowers in the Storm by Laura Kinsale (M/F romance)
o Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas (M/F romance)
o Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare (M/F comic romance)
· Character-based romances
I thought I’d discovered that I loved the subgenre Sports Romance, but then I realized the truth. I’d simply read a few novels in a row by the same author. In a genre known for plotting and predictable story beats, Mariana Zapata writes character-based interracial sports romances with Latinx characters. The novels are described as “slow burns,” a term that for me translates into “characters being given the room to bumble their way forward.” These stories are driven not by external events but by a growing trust between unique, flawed characters. In the Zapata novels I’ve read, both members of the potential couple are driven by interests and goals that are given as much space as the relationship. Each time I read one of her novels, I tumble deep into another person’s obsession: soccer, football, YouTube cooking channels, book illustration. Yes please. Take me away to a land full of human connections that make even football enthralling.
o The Wall of Winnipeg and Me by Mariana Zapata (M/F romance)
o Kulti by Mariana Zapata (M/F age-gap romance)
Hands Down by Mariana Zapata (M/F
A spinoff that follows one of the characters from The Wall of Winnipeg and Me, this novel is my favorite of the three in part because the male lead is not the strong or silent or domineering type. He’s sweet and often flighty and more than a bit lost. Like all Zapata novels I’ve read, the characters save each other, but in this one, I felt like the hero was someone I’d actually like in real life—kind.
· Science fiction and fantasy romances or nerd-culture romances
In a nod to both my childhood love of sff and much of my own writing, there is no way I can avoid the draw of sff when crossed with my current comfort food: romance. I started reading them about a month ago. I’ve only sketched out a map of this particular quadrant. There seem to be a lot of novels that include cats or cat fetishes. I don’t know…it just seems to be a thing. Here’s a few non-cat books.
Slow Heat by Leta Blake (M/M omegaverse
I’m part way through Slow Heat, which seems to use the gay dynamic in the book’s male-only sff culture to comment on gender dynamics in our own culture—much in the way of the 1937 feminist dystopian novel Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin or Motherlines (1978) by Suzy McKee Charnas. Though, or course, I’m assuming a romance-novel-type happy ending is also involved. The novel also has male pregnancy. Something I haven’t come across in my sff reading since I was in middle school and read some surreal and highly sexual 1970s and early 1980s sf.
o Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade (M/F curvy-heroine, nerd-culture romance)
Peter Darling by S. A. Chant (trans F/M Peter
In a nod to how hard it can be to get those small press books, I’ve been trying to track down a copy of Peter Darling w/o success. The Goodreads write-ups are great, but the press, Less Than Three Press, has closed and now the book is out of print. If you happen to have a copy you’d like to lend, hit me up! It sounds amazing, charming in all the ways so many of us need in 2020.
Julie C. Day's work has been published in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies including Black Static, the Dark, Split Lip Magazine, Podcastle, Interzone, the Cincinnati Review, and Necessary Fiction. Her debut collection, Uncommon Miracles, was released by PS Publishing in 2018. In 2918, Aqueduct Press released her novella, The Rampant, which was a finalist for the Lambda Award.