March is an exciting month for romance writers, as it’s when the Romance Writers of America announces their finalists in the RITA and Golden Heart contests for published books and unpublished manuscripts, respectively, submitted in the fall of the previous year. Excitement builds up over the day of the announcement as writers get calls from the RWA board and readers eagerly watch the RWA site to see if their favorite books made the cut. This year, the finalists were announced on March 21. Award winners will be announced on July 19 at the 2018 RWA National Conference in Denver, Colorado.
Here are the finalists that AAR’s staff read last year:
Spectred Isle by K.J. Charles (Paranormal)
The title is a play on words from Shakespeare’s Richard II and is the first book in a new series based around the natural magic of the English Green Man myth. It’s a fantastic book, and I loved every moment of it. It is set in the world of the characters from The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, although some years later in 1920s England. The First World War is over, but unbeknownst to most, there was a war going on called the War Beneath at the same time as the conventional one in the trenches. Governments were using arcanists and people with occult abilities to harness unnatural forces from beyond the veil, in order to unleash havoc on their enemies. In the midst of this unfolds the burgeoning relationship between sweet Saul and the devastating Randolph. This story is a gem.
Wanted and Wired by Vivien Jackson (Paranormal Romance)
This is a futuristic sci-fi romance that deals with people being on the run from a powerful government. The book is fast-paced and full of action, but the characters weren’t as likable as I was hoping for. I was also a little put off by the massive amount of information the author expected readers to absorb. A lot of it is necessary in order to fully understand the world in which our characters live, but I would have preferred it to be delivered in a less overwhelming manner. So, while Wanted and Wired wasn’t a complete flop, it’s not a book I’d have recommended for a RITA.
Take the Lead by Alexis Daria (Best First Book and Long Contemporary Romance)
This is a unique and sexy romance that delves into the current reality TV trend of dance competitions. The story really comes alive with excitement and tension as the couple competes for the title and finds themselves falling in love. The hero, Stone, is the strong silent type which pairs well with the lively and energetic Gina to give the romance an opposites attract flair. Gina’s Puerto Rican culture is authentically expressed with her expressions, family relationships, and the love of traditional cuisine. It’s a delightful romance and definitely worthy of being a RITA finalist.
Famous by Jenny Holiday (Long Contemporary Romance)
There are about seven hundred small moments to adore in this book, but the thing I loved the most was that it’s grounded in reality. Emerson’s pain is evident and so relatable – she’s a young woman who has let other people define her for far too long. Her time in Iowa reminds her who Emmy is as a woman and who she wants to be, and allows her to separate that from the public ideation of Emerson. Who among us has not had that same journey, albeit perhaps not on the cover of People and in the full glare of the media spotlight? Evan has been taught through a lot of life experience not to trust people and his choice to not only let Emmy in, but to allow her to open up his world is charming to watch. They are fully formed folks who could continue to operate without each other, but are so much better as a team.
His Perfect Partner by Priscilla Oliveras (Best First Book and Contemporary Mid-Length Romance)
The description of His Perfect Partner by Priscilla Oliveras intrigued me when the book showed up at AAR’s Steals and Deals. I snatched it up, and ended up discovering a new author to enjoy. This novel is something of an emotional roller coaster, and I couldn’t help rooting for Yazmine and Tomas.
Yazmine Fernandez comes from a close-knit Puerto Rican family in the Chicago suburbs, and has moved temporarily to New York to be near her sick father. She has been teaching classes at a local studio and there she meets Tomas Garcia, the single father of one of her students. As they get to know one another better, the attraction between them grows stronger, but the author sets up a very believable source of tension between them. Yazmine’s time in Chicago is only temporary, and Tomas isn’t looking for something temporary – nor is he looking to uproot his daughter. It’s a real dilemma, and one can sense the frustration it causes both parties. It’s a real dilemma, and one can sense the frustration it causes both parties. I found it hard to really get an understanding of Yazmine as a person at times in this book, but otherwise I really enjoyed this novel and the entire community Oliveras has created.
This story is the third installment in Wilson’s Royal series and is a charming and sweet story about a musician and the princess he falls in love with, even if she is due to be married in ten days’ time. For lovers of cute and fluffy romances, there is plenty to like: a likable hero and heroine, the plot with just enough conflict but not too much angst, and a corgi named Willow playing the Cupid. For sticklers of pesky details such as airtight logic and the proper forms of address for the British peerage, however, the princess’s reason for agreeing to marry a man thirty years her senior and multiple references to the princess’s betrothed as Duke Holden will probably have you raising your eyebrows in skepticism. Overall, I enjoyed the time I spent with the characters but am unlikely to remember much about it when the time comes for me to pick my favorites of the year.
This is an engaging, witty and sexy romance that is set in the spirited world of college football, and you’ll love this rivals-to-lovers story. Kayla and Jay have an instant connection from the moment they meet that makes both of them feel a little punch drunk, but neither realizes at the time that they’re archenemies due to the colleges they attend. She’s high-spirited, serious about team loyalty and doesn’t think she and Jay can overcome their rivalry, so Jay has to convince her to give him a chance. He’s absolutely delectable as he makes a play for her heart and persuades her to ignore their difference, if only for secret, stolen moments. Their attraction is searing, their developing feelings are exhilarating, and the sex is hot and emotional, and The Rivalry is a must-read for anyone who loves football or anyone just looking for a feel-good, epic love story.
Between the Devil and the Duke by Kelly Bowen (Long Historical Romance)
Kelly Bowen is one of the best of the bunch of new authors of historical romance to have emerged in the last couple of years. Her heroines are clever, pragmatic, determined, and – when called for – devious; qualities which make them irresistibly attractive to their heroes, men who are secure enough in their masculinity to be able to appreciate their unique talents. This is the third book in the Season for Scandal series and features Lady Angelique Archer, a young woman carrying the weight of her family’s responsibilities on her slim shoulders. The hero Alexander Lavoie is a partner in a discreet, efficient, and very expensive business that specializes in making disastrous scandals disappear. Alex is also the proprietor of a highly successful gaming establishment. When Alex realizes that behind Angelique’s lovely exterior lies a brilliant mathematical mind, he offers her a job. The story that follows is well-plotted and nicely paced.
The Scoundrel’s Honor by Christi Caldwell (Long Historical Romance)
Eighteen-year-old Lady Penelope Tidemore is determined to be a proper lady when she attends her first ball of the Season, because her family has provided far too much fodder for the gossips. Another guest there is Ryker Black, the bastard son of a duke, who’s been granted a title by the King and who’s also the owner of a notorious gaming-hell. For the first half of the book, he’s a collection of clichés molded together to make a giant jerk. She can be Pollyanna-ish and has no flaws other than talking too much. But she brings out the (very deeply hidden) best in him, and the second half of the book was a great improvement over the first.
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The Scandalous Flirt by Olivia Drake (Long Historical Romance)
Aurora Paxton is a disgraced debutante who is summoned back to London to help her aunt escape a mysterious potential scandal. Lucas Vale, the Marquess of Dashell, is involved as well in solving the mystery, since this will be advantageous to his pursuit of an heiress for his bride. Aurora has known Lucas for years, but he’s always been cold to her. But is it possible that he’s loved her all along and has finally found a way to show it? Despite this tantalizing beginning the story fails to deliver. It falls at the lighter end of the Regency romance spectrum, and readers looking for historical accuracy and period appropriateness are not going to find them here. Combine that with a thoroughly unlikeable hero and a mercurial heroine and the whole thing was meh.
The Day of the Duchess by Sarah MacLean (Long Historical Romance)
The concluding book in the Scandal and Scoundrels series is an excellent second-chance romance in which the characters are fully developed and multi-faceted and in which the central relationship is complicated, messy, and full of raw, visceral emotion. Heartbreak, hope, and redemption are very much at the forefront of the story. The yearning Haven and Sera feel for each other is palpable and their heartbreak and anguish over the loss of their child is deeply affecting. These are two very flawed, very human characters who have to go to hell and back, but they emerge from the flames stronger and bound together even more deeply than before.
Blame It on the Duke by Lenora Bell (Short Historical Romance)
Nicholas, the Marquess of Hatherly, is a connoisseur of any vice he can get his privileged hands on all in the name of living life to the fullest and coping with his father’s slow descent into madness and his own resigned acceptance that the family curse will affect him, too. Miss Alice Tombs is not the typical English rose; instead, she a knack with languages including Sanskrit. She plans on traveling to India to present her translation of an ancient Indian text. When Nick and Alice find out that their father gambled them into marriage, they’re aghast. But they make do, and start experimenting with the Kama Sutra Sanskrit text (of course!) as their sexual guide. I didn’t enjoy this historical romance and can’t recommend it.
The Rogue’s Conquest by Lily Maxton (Short Historical Romance)
Despite being handsome and the owner of a successful boxing salon, James MacGregor has an inferiority complex the size of Scotland. Eleanor, an earl’s sister, has had several papers published by the Natural History Society and poses as a man for her talks. This is the second book in the series about the Townsend siblings and features enjoyable, snarky conversations between James and Eleanor. However, the pacing is off with most of the emotional weight of the story coming well into the second half, and the short length, somewhere between a long novella and a short novel does not give the protagonists and their relationship enough time to properly develop.
Guarding Mr. Fine by HelenKay Dimon (Romantic Suspense)
This is a formulaic alpha male contemporary. Although, the third in the series, it can be read as a standalone. While Dimon’s writing is definitely above average, much of the plot and exposition is through dialogue rather than narrative description and scene setting, which I fine less satisfying. That said, Seth and Rick’s banter and sex scenes are enjoyable and the latter quite steamy.
This is a story from the Scandal at the Christmas Ball anthology. Vale Penrith became the heir to the Brockmore dukedom, after his father and brother were killed in a boating accident four years previously. Upon the tragedy that fell his family, Vale vowed to never connect to another human that strongly again because the pain of loss was too great. Lady Viola Hawthorne is one year away from the fruition of her grand plan to be the most scandalous woman she possibly could, so that no one would marry her and she could retain her independence. A husband would prevent her from achieving her dream of indulging in her music in Vienna. The passion and connection between Vale and Viola burn hot, quickly. First as enemies and then as lovers, the two must decide if they can surrender individual goals for a magic stronger than their stubbornness – true love.
This is a story from the Hamilton’s Battalion: A Trio of Romances anthology. It is set during the Revolutionary War in the year 1781 when Colonel Alexander Hamilton led the siege against Yorktown and won a key victory in the fight for American independence. Marginalized people have existed in all communities throughout our history, and this story is a celebration of their lives and reminds all of us who need to believe in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence that we, the people, are there for those who are still striving to achieve the American Dream. Set during the siege of Yorktown, the story opens with John Hunter and Henry Latham desperately trying to bludgeon each other to death. One fights for the American cause so that his sister’s husband can be freed from slavery; the other fights for the British because his father believes him worthless, frivolous and redeemable only by martyrdom. In their walk together of hundreds of miles, Henry starts his fight against his own prejudice and privilege, while John battles to believe in his right to equality. I cried as I read this novella — it was achingly lovely.
The Secret of my Seduction by Caroline Linden (Romance Novella)
The sex scenes are steamy, intensely romantic and very well-written and the chemistry between Bathsheba and Liam is evident from their first scene together. This builds steadily throughout the story to culminate in an explosive wall-banger(!) which I think will make my personal “hottest of 2017” list. The Secret of My Seduction is a quick, sexy read that works both as a standalone and as a nice coda to the Scandals series.
Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins (Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance)
This is, quite simply, a gift. There is a calm and lovely unfolding here of both, the heroine authentic self and the new life she is slowly creating almost unconsciously. Be assured though, there is a sexy man with a wry sense of humor and quiet strength — a Higgins trademark — and there is definitely a dog. In the midst of this meditative text, the story is so funny, I laughed out loud many times at Nora’s thoughts as well as at her interactions with a newfound gaggle of lady friends. Just as in life, there is joy amidst pain and laughter mixed in with the tears.
What do you think of this year’s list of nominations? Stop by and let us know in the comments.
I’m an amateur student of medieval manuscripts, an editor and proofreader, a choral singer, a lapsed engineer, and passionate about sunshine and beaches. In addition to reviewing books for All About Romance, I write for USA TODAY Happy Ever After and my blog Cogitations & Meditations. Keira Soleore is a pseudonym.