Every year, the Romance Writers of America bestows the RITA award to outstanding books in the genre. But for the past two years, RWA has reckoned with a #RitasSoWhite problem. Well-written and popular romances written by authors of color were shut out, and other authors announced that they did not enter their books because of the known problems with the contest.
All that changed this year when two black authors and one South Asian author finally won well-deserved RITAs. RWA approved changes to the contest for 2020, but I can’t stop thinking about the 2019 finalists. Yes, some excellent books won this year, but why were so many finalists mediocre or poor romances? Shouldn’t RITA winners be books that expand the boundaries of the genre in new and interesting ways?
Although it’s possible that many of these books were not submitted to the contest, here are eight romances I think should have been finalists; I could list at least five more that should have made the cut.
Band Sinister by KJ Charles (Historical Short): Guy Frisby is horrified when local rake Sir Philip Rookwood rescues his injured sister. Guy can’t help but be shocked and intrigued by Philip’s devil-may-care attitude and his “found family” of hedonist, atheist friends. Charles uses the tender love affair between Philip and Guy to explore how love is freedom, duty, and responsibility. Philip’s band of friends saves him in every way that Guy’s extended family does not. Band Sinister is a perfect romance, proving that love is what makes a family.
A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole (Contemporary Long): Portia Hobbs travels to Scotland as a social media intern for sword-maker Tavish McKenzie. Their romance and the plot accelerate when Tav discovers he’s the heir to a modern-day dukedom. Yes, this is a contemporary, but Cole lays lines, sets up grappling hooks, and effortlessly climbs a mountain that black writers and readers have been told is not for them. Through her characters, Cole staunchly argues that dukes are for everyone, wealth should be used to benefit the community, and immigration is a positive good. Unfortunately, some readers' implicit—even, at times, explicit—bias prevents them from accepting these happy, successful black characters as believable even as they gobble up "white duke" books by the hundreds. But those readers are missing out: Both for what it attempts and achieves, I’d argue that A Duke by Default is the most important romance of the year.
Layover by Katrina Jackson (Novella): Travel blogger Lena Ward has 19 hours in her hometown of Oakland before her next flight. Jackson’s novella plays with form, with chapters labeled like song tracks from a Spotify playlist. These vignettes capture Lena’s relationships with friends, family, and prospective lover Tony Dembélé. Jackson knows music is about memory and feeling, and each track is infused with Lena’s grief over the death of her mother two years earlier. She’s traveled the entire world, but only by coming home can Lena face what she’s lost and find what she needs.
Scoring off the Field by Naima Simone (Contemporary Mid): This book is the romance equivalent of an Olympics gymnast performing a perfect routine. Tennyson Clark has been in love with Domenic Anderson ever since they were kids in foster care together, but he’s never seen her as anything but a pesky younger sister. The book opens when she resigns as his assistant, and his hurt and panic allow him to see her in a new light. “Friends to lovers” is a cornerstone trope of the genre, but Simone refashions it with such ruthless precision that it feels completely new.
A Taste of Pleasure by Chloe Blake (Contemporary Short): Danica Nillson is a Michelin-starred chef, but her unfaithful boyfriend wants a thinner, more beautiful woman to be the “face” of their restaurant on reality TV. Hurt and betrayed, Danica ends up back in the orbit of Antonio Lorenzetti, a man she had a one-night stand with a year earlier. Category romance fearlessly packs plot into a compact package, but there is a notable subplot involving Toni’s 13-year-old daughter, Sophia. A boy is pressuring her to send him naked pictures. Even in romance, a genre that celebrates sexuality and women’s pleasure, it is rare to see such a frank, realistic portrayal of teenage sexuality. Toni respects his daughter’s feelings but is still horrified and underprepared for this parenting challenge.
Tempest by Beverly Jenkins (Historical Long): Mail-order bride Regan Carmichael arrives in Wyoming Territory with a literal bang. She shoots a man she thinks is an outlaw, but he turns out to be her intended husband, Dr. Colton Lee. Oops. Regan’s journey West isn’t a desperate escape; instead, she is a wealthy, strong-minded woman anxious to start the next phase of her life. Jenkins’ research is impeccable, and Tempest is an object lesson in how the best historical romances challenge modern readers to see both the past and present in new ways.
Thirsty by Mia Hopkins (Contemporary Mid): Sal Rosas is a former gang member who was recently released from prison. He is living in a garage in his old neighborhood, working two jobs, and trying to get back on his feet. Vanessa is going back to school to be an accountant, hoping to make a better life for herself and her young daughter. Thirsty offers readers a powerful redemption arc while avoiding the casually racist escape narrative. Sal and Vanessa don't want to leave their neighborhood; they want to make it stronger. The book is unusual for being from a hero’s-only point of view, but Hopkins’ portrayal of Sal and Vanessa’s love story is fully satisfying.
Written on His Skin by Simone Stark (Contemporary Short): Abby Trent sends off a generic “to any soldier” letter for a military mail-writing campaign. When Theodore LeRoux opens that letter, he knows fate has brought the perfect woman into his life. Stark deftly pulls off “Love at First Letter,” leaving readers to interrogate the nature of attraction and love. If it’s possible to fall in love with our eyes, then why not believe it’s possible to fall in love with our words? Abby is afraid Roux will be disappointed in her appearance, but Stark holds fast to her premise: In love, what we say is more important than how we look.
Jennifer Prokop is the Kirkus romance correspondent and co-hosts the romance podcast Fated Mates. Follow her on Twitter @JenReadsRomance.