In the Middle of Somewhere by Roan Parrish

If you’re a big romance reader, you’re probably familiar with this storyline: two people meet and dislike each other on sight. They’re thrown together regularly over a period of time, and that dislike turns to mutual appreciation and attraction. Just as they think they’ve found love, life gets in the way and the two are parted. After a period of heartbreak and soul-searching, they’re reunited for their happily-ever-after (or at least happy-for-now) ending. You may love this storyline. I do not. The romance books I love are decidedly different from this pattern, and my latest discovery is no exception: In The Middle of Somewhere by Roan Parrish.

First, here’s the gist: Daniel is a lifelong city boy, native to Philadelphia where he grew up as a black sheep in his family of mechanics. Now, he’s finally getting his graduate degree and can look for a job as an English professor. But the only college that will interview him for a position is in a small town in Michigan where he feels like even MORE of a black sheep. He’s wondering if he’ll ever fit in anywhere, when a nighttime mishap lands him on the doorstep of Rex, a local furniture-builder made reclusive by his crippling shyness. Their physical and emotional attraction is immediate, but they’ve both been damaged by trauma and are reluctant to trust each other. Over time, following their instincts and talking honestly about their feelings leads them into a relationship that is healing to them both, though tested by unwelcome surprises on all sides.

Now, it’s not perfect. For one thing, it’s written entirely from Daniel’s perspective, which can leave Rex’s feelings and needs neglected (though you can see the author tries to make up for this). But despite its weaker places, this is a book which distances itself from all the tropes I dislike, in heartwarming and refreshing ways. The attraction that draws Rex and Daniel together is both physical and emotional; they make each other feel safe and valued, and there’s no friction of dislike to get past. The steamy scenes (and there are many) are full of healthy communication, safe practices, consent, tenderness and mutual care. There is also frank, honest discussion of past traumas and the baggage they each bring to the relationship, which means the narrative focuses on their emotional healing and making peace with their past – in communication and partnership with each other. They support and stand up for each other, and (spoilers) there’s no gratuitous separation or a breakup used as a plot device. The narrative climax that does happen ties into all the issues that were explored earlier in the story, bringing them to a head AND leaving room for sequels.

What’s also effective is the immersion into the various subcultures in the story: small town life, Michigan culture, the Philadelphia scene, and the world of higher education. Each feels authentic and researched, giving the novel a strong sense of place and being grounded in the world.

If you’re looking for a steamy, escapist read grounded on wholesome, caring principles, I recommend you find yourself In the Middle of Somewhere.

Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert

Spoiler alert: as far as romance novels go, I’m not a huge fan of what’s called the “enemies to lovers” storyline. To me, strong dislike is an odd and unlikely foundation for a relationship, so the story always feels implausible and vaguely annoying (yes, this includes Beauty and the Beast). That preference of mine still holds true in the case of Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert: the protagonists start off as enemies, and I don’t really care for it. However, the book has a lot of other things going for it which balance that part out.

Conventionally Yours is the story of Conrad and Alden, who have been playing the card game Odyssey in the same group for several years. They don’t get along: Conrad thinks Alden is arrogant and uptight, Alden thinks Conrad is a bit of a slob skating by on charisma. It doesn’t help that they’re the group’s two best players, constantly butting heads over the game. Unbeknownst to each other, they’re both going through a hard time when the book opens, each in great need of a miracle. The miracle comes when they’re given the chance to go to a big convention for Odyssey fans and play in a tournament which gives the winner a big boost of fame and a cash prize, not to mention the chance to become a professional player. The only catch: the convention is on the other side of the country, and to get there, they have to drive…together. As the miles roll on, they find themselves getting a better understanding of each other, and a genuine connection blooms. But the tournament can only have one winner, and the stakes are high for both of them – can their fragile new relationship survive?

Even though I don’t care for “enemies-to-lovers” romances, this book does include lots of other things I love: lots of diverse representation, realistic emotional stakes, cute illustrations, and homages to the world of fandom and fanfiction (where “there was only one bed” remains a beloved plot device). The characters are well-rounded and likeable, the romance is sweet, and the portrayal of gaming, fandom, and LGBTQ friendship is loving and on-point. If you’re looking for a feel-good read, and like some of these tropes more than I do, I definitely recommend trying Conventionally Yours.

Just Like That by Cole McCade

The weather won’t stop getting colder anytime soon, but a steamy book might warm you right up! My latest suggestion: Just Like That by Cole McCade. This sweet story about second chances at happily-ever-after centers on Summer Hemlock, who comes back to his hometown to work at his old school, and Fox Iseya, Summer’s former teacher and current crush, who’s been grieving his late wife for so long he can’t imagine himself otherwise. Summer, crippled by anxiety, quickly changes all that by proposing an unusual deal: every time he can do something brave, he earns a kiss from Fox. Fox finds himself unexpectedly flustered and intrigued by the offer, and the resulting relationship might just heal them both.

Despite the frankly unlikely character names, I found this book sweet, endearing, funny, and yes, steamy, with lots of points in its favor, including a strongly ethical portrayal of relationships, grief, and self-confidence. Both characters are fully-developed people with personalities, hobbies, and foibles. Both characters are students of psychology, and they don’t shy away from discussing the underlying issues each is grappling with. There’s also good solid representation of consent and negotiating intimacy to both partners’ comfort level.  Maybe most importantly, though Summer is Fox’s former student, the book is clear that nothing personal happens or could happen between them unless they’re both fully mature, consenting adults – a vital point for me to enjoy the story. All of these elements combined to create a novel that, though definitely erotica, has love, respect, and the characters’ wellbeing at its heart.

If you need to believe in second chances, if you want to feel hope and bravery, and if you’re looking for a healing, escapist read for your wintry days, I recommend giving this new book a try – Just Like That.

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

What do you do when you fall in love with the last person you ever expect to? And they live thousands of miles (including an ocean) away in another country? How do you stay true to your homeland and your family and still create a life with someone that has become incredibly important to you? Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston attempts to answer these questions and lots more in this charming, funny, fast-paced romance.

Alex is the son of the first woman President of the United States. He is just finishing up his graduate degree and is eager to join his Mother’s re-election campaign. He has long mapped out a path of a political career for himself and is anxious to begin. Henry is a Prince, literally. He is the grandson of the Queen of England and fulfills many royal duties, part of the long tradition of his family.

There is animosity between Alex and Henry from the first time they meet, a feeling that is confirmed and intensified with each meeting until they come to blows at the wedding of Henry’s older brother which causes Alex to fall into (and ruin) the magnificent royal wedding cake. International diplomacy steps in, in the form of their respective families PR teams, and the two are forced to spend time together to assure the world that the sons of the two superpowers are actually ok with each other.

Of course, once they spend time together, they (reluctantly) begin to like each other, become friends and then confidants. They are both in unique positions, their roles in their families to be unfailingly supportive and are always under intense scrutiny. Their connection grows into attraction and love and now they have the added stress of keeping their romantic relationship a secret. Alex’s mother is facing a difficult re-election and Henry’s family will not approve of a gay son. Inevitably, the secret is leaked and all hell breaks loose. Through it all, Alex and Henry struggle to stay true to each other and their values and to find a way to be together.

I don’t typically read romance novels, but this one has been getting a lot of buzz and has great reviews and I can see why. It is snappy and fun and moves at a breakneck speed. The characters, both the main couple and the various supporting cast, are all appealing and relate-able (Well, mostly. One lives in the White House and the other lives at Kensington Palace!) In many ways this is a typical romance novel. A couple meet and hate each other; couple spends time together and start to like each other; couple falls in love; couple must overcome one or more obstacles to be together. The big difference of course, is that the couple in question are homosexual although this is treated as mostly incidental (but not completely without political consequences) There is a lot of politics in this book – all of the characters are fictional of course, but the issues they face are many that are prominent in today’s political arena – immigration (Alex and his sister are half-Mexican, their father being from Mexico), marital status (the US President is a divorced woman), gender equality, duty to country, conservative vs liberal (in both the US and England). If politics are not your cup of tea, you might want to skim over some parts. Otherwise don’t miss fun romance!