So. The Goodreads Choice Awards. Every year I feel like by the time the winners are announced most people are in one of two camps: A) THAT book won?, or B) I have no idea what any of these books are. Let’s face it, these awards aren’t the greatest indicators of what the “best book” in any given genre is for the year. Mainly because GR bases nominations on the number of users adding, reading and reviewing books, missing out on some amazing indie releases and debut authors. Also, most of us voting are unlikely to have read all of the nominees by the time we place our vote. With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to try reading each of the ten books in the final round of the romance category and reviewing them to see just how closely my opinions line up with the actual votes. And for kicks, I’ll also determine how I would have ranked them had I been the sole voter in the awards (because I’m self-involved like that).
The final ten nominees for 2021 were (if you’d like to jump to a specific review, just click the title):
- People We Meet on Vacation – Emily Henry
- The Spanish Love Deception – Elena Armas
- It Happened One Summer – Tessa Bailey
- The Soulmate Equation – Christina Lauren
- The Ex-Hex – Erin Sterling
- The Love Hypothesis – Ali Hazelwood
- One Last Stop – Casey McQuiston
- Neon Gods – Katee Robert
- Act Your Age, Eve Brown – Talia Hibbert
- Seven Days in June – Tia Williams
Let’s jump into the reviews! And prepare yourself for a LONG ass post…
People We Meet on Vacation – Emily Henry
I’m beginning to think that Emily Henry and I are stuck in an ‘I really like you, I just don’t love you’ relationship. PWMoV is a friends to lovers, When Harry Met Sally inspired romance that revolves around Poppy and Alex who meet at university and become best friends. For the last 10 years they’ve taken a summer trip together, but since the events of their last trip two years ago, they’ve barely spoken. Hoping to repair their friendship, Poppy asks Alex to take one more trip. Now, she has one week to fix everything.
PWMoV is structured to alternate between the present and Poppy & Alex’s past trips, slowly building up to what happened 2 years ago. While I understand what EH was trying to do with all this backstory, there were moments where these flashbacks dragged for me. Then, once I finally reached the big reveal, there was a moment of, that’s it? For something that supposedly had such a big impact on their relationship, I expected something more…dramatic.
My favourite thing about this book was Poppy’s sense of humour. Her jokes and quips were a lot of fun and a large part of why I liked her character so much. Alex’s more reserved nature took longer to warm up to but, like Poppy, I came to appreciate just how lovely he was. Their opposites attract dynamic was great, full of sweet, vulnerable conversations and witty back and forths. Although the slow burn romance was easy to root for, I found their friendship really endearing, too.
Lately, contemporary romances seem to be incorporating more serious real-world topics. PWMoV involves bullying, death of a loved one, millennial burnout (VERY RELATABLE), and navigating personal insecurities. Yet, it does so without making the book feel heavy or dampening the romance. It still felt like something I could fluffily enjoy but with depth.
Overall, a great pick for a summer romance binge and to consider bringing on your next holiday.
The Spanish Love Deception – Elena Armas
The Spanish Love Deception seems like something I’d easily award five stars. This book’s marketed tropes sound like my personal romance bingo card. So, understand my disappointment when I say I’m only giving it 2.5.
Our heroine Catalina works for an engineering consulting company alongside the hero, Aaron. The two haven’t gotten along since a bad introduction 2 years ago. Catalina’s sister is getting married back in Spain soon and wanting to avoid the pity stares, Lina tells her family she’ll be bringing her (non-existent) boyfriend. To her shock, Aaron offers to play the role and, without options, Lina accepts.
While I know it’s a debut, some of the writing in this was noticeably clunky. There are a few odd word choices/phrases and a lot of the dialogue doesn’t use contractions, making it sound stilted. The sex scenes also aren’t my favourite – the descriptions were fine but every time Aaron would open his mouth I’d cringe. And the number of times he calls Lina ‘baby’…stop, please.
One of the main drawcards for me was ‘enemies to lovers’ but, honestly, I feel let down. Part of the reason I love this trope is snarky banter and there was so little here. Even the “enemies” dynamic was questionable because the rivalry seemed to only be in Catalina’s head. I also had trouble feeling the chemistry between Lina & Aaron at the start but, thankfully, it improved with time. Probably all the intense staring and casual brushing of body parts.
It took a while for me to get into this. I felt really disconnected early on but things picked up a lot once Lina and Aaron got to Spain. The fake dating plot wasn’t the best I’ve seen, but I still had fun with it. The interactions with Catalina’s family were also sweet (except the dick pic requests & ‘bubbies’ comments? WHYYYY?), and I wish we’d gotten more time with them.
Lastly, our leads. I really disliked Catalina to start because she came off childish and annoying. Plus, the endless pages of internal monologuing were tedious. She grew on me slightly but her obtuseness about Aaron was frustrating. Aaron, on the other hand, was nice but verged on being too perfect (except for his dirty talk…). In other words, fine but nothing I’m obsessing over.
Despite my ranting, this was okay but I don’t understand the hype. With the internet you win some, you lose some, I suppose.
It Happened One Summer – Tessa Bailey
I’m not a Schitt’s Creek fan, I’ve never read a Tessa Bailey book before, and yet, here we are.
It Happened One Summer is a Schitt’s Creek inspired romance about an influencer named Piper who gets sent to a small fishing town by her step-father after hosting an out-of-control party and falls in love with a gruff fisherman, Brendan. The premise for this was really cute and I had a lot of fun with it. The plot surrounding Piper and her sister Hannah fixing up their father’s old bar was especially sweet. However, the book’s third act complications felt convenient and frustrating.
I knew going in that TB’s books were known for high levels of steam and IHOS certainly didn’t disappoint. I mean…*fans self*. This was easily some of the better written (and raunchier) smut I’ve read in romance. Still, if I’m being honest, I could probably have used slightly less steam, only because the sex scenes and sexual thoughts became extremely dominant in the second half at the expense of things like plot and character development.
As far as leads go, I enjoyed both Piper and Brendan (despite the latter being too alpha for my liking sometimes). Piper was such a cheerful, ditsy, entertaining character, and I loved reading as she became more independent and realised her value outside of social media. Meanwhile, it was lovely seeing Brendan lighten up, embrace more change and move on from the death of his wife. The chemistry between the two was also pretty fire and perfect for lovers of the grumpy-sunshine trope.
This was a great opposites attract/small-town romance, suited to those summer feels. I’ll 100% be looking out for the sequel.
The Soulmate Equation – Christina Lauren
In recent years I’ve become a bit of a CL fan so I hit this up as soon as it came out. Our heroine is Jess, a statistician and single mother, who sends a genetic sample to a matchmaking company called Genetically, which supposedly can use DNA to find your soulmate. To everyone’s surprise, she gets an unheard-of 98% compatibility score with the company’s stubborn and standoffish founder, Dr River Pena. Hoping to maximise publicity of the match, the company offers to pay Jess to spend time with River.
I really liked the premise – it’s similar to John Marrs’s novel The One, if it had been a cute romance instead of a thriller. The book focuses a lot on whether love is about choice or fate/chemistry and I found this quite interesting. I’m not usually drawn to ‘Soulmate’ trope books but I was okay with how it was handled here. The fake dating trope, however, was somewhat weak. There were also some elements of the story that felt unbelievable and the pacing had moments where it felt either too slow or too rushed.
The main reason I didn’t rate this higher was the chemistry between Jess and River. As individual characters, I liked both of them. Jess was smart, independent and kind, and while River was slower to connect with, I eventually got on board with him as well (despite a rough patch at the end). However, I just wasn’t as invested in their relationship or convinced of their spark as I have been with CL’s other couples.
The book’s side characters were my favourite part. Jess’s grandparents were lovely, her daughter Juno was sweet and I adored Jess’s best friend, romance author Fizzy. Sassy, funny, supportive and a little dirty, we should all have a Fizzy in our lives (and our rom-coms). It was really nice to have an MC who was a single parent with a wonderful support network behind her.
The Soulmate Equation was an enjoyable science meets romance read but nothing special and far from my favourite CL book.
The Ex-Hex – Erin Sterling
I’m don’t know which is worse, a bad book or one for which the only descriptor you have is: it’s ‘fine’.
The Ex-Hex is about a witch named Vivi who lives in a small, magic-fuelled town called Graves Glen. After a breakup with fellow witch Rhys Penhallow, Vivi jokingly (& drunkenly) curses him. Nine years later, Rhys returns to recharge the town’s magical ley lines and finds the curse in full force. Wanting to depart quickly, Rhys charges the lines but in doing so infects the town with his altered magic. And so, Vivi and Rhys team up to reverse the curse and fix the resulting mayhem.
This book isn’t bad. It’s just bland. It’s a light, fluffy read that reminds me of magical sit-coms like Bewitched or Sabrina the Teenage Witch but with less charm and laughs. I love easy-going books as much as the next person but I still need something fun or swoon-worthy to engage with. Here, I wanted more from everything.
I really liked the idea of the curse and Vivi & Rhys fixing it, but the execution was disappointing. The main reason was that the stakes felt really low. For something with the potential to destroy the town, I expected more magical hijinks. The pacing was also off. Towards the middle of the book the curse plot halts for Rhys & Vivi to have a sex marathon and by the time they remember their situation there aren’t many pages left, leaving the resolution feeling rushed and flat.
When it comes to the witchcraft and world building, there’s almost no explanation. I have no idea how magic works or how witches fit into the world. It’s very vague and as someone who loves magic, it makes me sad. However, I did like Graves Glen as a setting. It’s charming, autumn-y and full of romantic, small-town vibes. I wanted to join the Halloween festivities and eat my weight in hand pies.
Onto the romance which is, to use that word again, “fine”. The back and forth dialogue is okay, Rhys & Vivi are both likeable (if unmemorable) characters, and the smut is…eh. Honestly, I don’t really have any intense feelings either way. It’s kind of sweet, but there’s little depth and the two never deal with the reasons for their original breakup.
In the end, not really my idea of a great magical romance but good for those after some fluff during spooky season.
The Love Hypothesis – Ali Hazelwood
The hype around The Love Hypothesis has been insane so I was almost positive there was no way it could be as good as people were saying. But sweet Jesus, this book. It’s just so cute and lovely, and darn it, I think I’m in love. It’s about a biology graduate student named Olive who abruptly kisses grumpy professor, Dr Adam Carlson, in an attempt to convince her BFF that she’s dating someone new. When their supposed “relationship” hits the rumour mill, Adam and Olive realise they can both get something out of perpetuating the idea of a fake relationship. But, as with any fake dating scenario, real feelings start to get involved.
I loved Olive & Adam’s relationship. The banter and flow of their conversations were top-notch and genuinely funny. I could really feel the chemistry and was seriously rooting for them to get together for real. It was all so wonderfully wholesome, but still had room for an A+ sex scene (minus one questionable move involving a boob. How?). It was also super exciting to see a female lead who’s demisexual.
I really enjoyed the STEM setting and story revolving around Olive trying to continue her pancreatic cancer research. YES TO WOMEN IN SCIENCE. Sometimes these other narratives can get lost against the central romance but not so here, and I was interested in how things would turn out. You can tell the author has a background in scientific research because it felt very believable.
As a romance, TLH is super trope-y. One hotel room, workplace romance, grumpy-sunshine, not enough chairs, miscommunication, etc. But it uses them in such an enjoyable and self-aware way that it gets away with it, especially if you find these things comforting in your romcoms. Yet, the miscommunication element does get utilised slightly too many times which felt frustrating at points.
Basically, the internet told me so and they were right.
One Last Stop – Casey McQuiston
Into awkward PDA-ing on the subway? This may be the book for you! One Last Stop is a F/F romance based around bisexual uni student/waitress, August, who has recently moved to New York only to meet an amazing girl named Jane on the subway. As it turns out, Jane is displaced in time from the 1970s, bound to the train line and unable to remember her past or how she got stuck. So August sets out to save her.
First things first, at over 400 pages, this was too long and it showed in the pacing. I’m confident it could have been cut down and still achieved its aims. Things started to drag around the middle, part of which was probably due to Jane being stuck on the subway and the repetition of having scenes in the same place. However, despite this, it also felt like there were a few too many things battling for attention. There are 3 main plot points – Jane’s dilemma, August’s missing uncle, and the fight to save Billy’s Pancake House, but also a bunch of small ones and it can feel like a lot.
The side characters in OLS were really likeable. You can never go wrong with a super sweet found family theme and, here, it was like being enveloped in a warm, welcoming hug. The cast was so charming, diverse and supportive, and I loved their uniqueness. Aside from being a LGBTI romance OLS really felt like a love letter to the queer community. It includes elements of queer history (remembering those who suffered and fought), incorporates the New York drag scene, and generally advocates for love, acceptance and pride in who you are.
Now, the romance. Fingering on a crowded train aside…it was good, but I wasn’t blown away. I could see the chemistry, I thought the sex scenes were done well and the ending was satisfyingly adorable, yet there was something missing I can’t quite put my finger on.
Two more small points:
- Casey’s writing – still good! Approachable, easy to get into, and solid humour (even though I didn’t laugh as much as I did with RW&RB)
- The time travel elements – a little iffy. The characters try to explain but it’s not the clearest, especially as to how August fits in.
Not my favourite read on this list but I’m still looking forward to CM’s YA debut I Kisssed Shara Wheeler.
Neon Gods – Katee Robert
I had low expectations going into Neon Gods, mainly because I know my own tastes (I’m not just making a dig). It ended up being slightly better than I thought but far from a win.
NG is a Greek mythology reimagining. It’s set in the modern city of Olympus which is ruled over by a powerful body of thirteen, each with a title named after a Greek god, and headed by Zeus. Persephone, our heroine, flees after her mother tries to marry her off to Zeus, despite him supposedly murdering his previous wives. She finds refuge with Hades, who holds a grudge against Zeus for the murder of his parents. The two form a bargain to enter a public sexual relationship to reduce Persephone’s appeal to Zeus and get back at him.
The word people constantly use to describe this book is “spicy”. Now, if we’re measuring by the amount of sexual content, sure, it’s level 10 because there are a lot of sex scenes. But, even for erotica, something this length doesn’t need 8+ sex scenes. Don’t get me wrong, they started out hot and fun but after a while, it gets repetitive. I can only read about so much fingerbanging. Also, from the way this was marketed and early chapters teasing Hades’ “tastes” and “playroom”, I was expecting more kink, D/S or S&M scenarios but aside from some exhibitionism, it’s quite vanilla.
The world building is ambiguous and odd. Is there magic? Some elements suggest yes, but almost everything else feels contemporary (e.g. the thirteen aren’t Gods, just corrupt leaders). Then there’s Olympus itself – where is it? The book makes it sound like America, but I’m not sure and if so, why is everything named after Greek mythology? Does that lore exist in this world? Speaking of which, the actual mythology links in this are light. It’s a very loose retelling and the only real ties are the character names, division of the city, occasional references such as Persephone’s safe word (Pomegranate), and Zeus being a dick.
The plot is minimal. If you’re looking for meaty drama to go with your romance (or sex, really), there isn’t much here. The Zeus conflict ramps up around 80% but resolves in an anticlimatic and overly neat fashion with plenty of unanswered questions. The book’s focus is the central relationship, which I have mixed feelings about. There were parts I liked and I could feel the connection between Hades & Persephone. Still, I wish it’d been more of a slow burn fitting the myth and that the two of them had been given better developed character arcs. Also, Hades’ constant mother-henning of Persephone started to annoy me after a while.
I didn’t strongly dislike this, but I get the feeling that erotica might not be for me.
Act Your Age, Eve Brown – Talia Hibbert
The order to read a series in is 1 and then skip straight to 3, right? Great, that’s what I thought.
Our heroine is Eve. Her life is a mess and when her parents cut off her trust fund, she finds herself interviewing for a job as a cook at a small B&B. The owner, Jacob, is organised, controlled, and wants chaotic Eve nowhere near his business. That is, until she accidentally hits him with her car, leaving him with a broken wrist and little choice but to hire her.
The story is predictable but in a cozy, comforting way. There isn’t much plotwise outside the relationship but I was completely fine with that since I loved the setting and liked the characters. The climax is tedious (DAMN YOU, MISCOMMUNICATION!) and you see it coming but I appreciated how quickly the characters overcame it.
Once again, Talia Hibbert brings the diversity goods. Two leads on the autism spectrum? A female MC who’s black and bigger in size? All the yes. It’s so wonderful to have some variety! Plus, I loved that these traits were important to Eve and Jacob’s characters and played a role in their interactions, but didn’t dominate their stories.
If you love ‘grumpy-sunshine’ and ‘enemies-to-lovers’, look no further. Eve is bubbly, charming, and unabashedly herself. She’s an endearing sweetheart and it was great seeing her journey of self-discovery unfold. Jacob, I went back and forth on, mainly because he’s an ass at the beginning but reveals himself to be considerate, supportive, and romantic underneath. There’s a lot of good banter between the two as they fire shots at one another and some wonderfully vulnerable moments as well.
In Talia Hibbert fashion, AYAEB is steamy. There’s a good build-up before the big moment (well, in pages if not time), and I liked that the sex didn’t completely take over, a problem I had with Chloe Brown. Still, there were a few lines I could have done without (vaginas dissolving into glitter, um what?) and I had trouble connecting Jacob’s bedroom persona with his everyday one.
Definitely would recommend! Guess I’ll have to go back and read Take a Hint, Dani Brown, won’t I?
Seven Days in June – Tia Williams
I love surprises. And this book was the good kind.
SDIJ is about Eva & Shane who met in high school fifteen years ago. After sharing one crazy, loved-up week together Shane mysteriously disappeared, leaving Eva heartbroken. Both have since gone on to become authors – Eva of a bestselling fantasy-romance series and Shane of award-winning literary fiction. While Eva lives in New York with her daughter Audre and manages debilitating migraines, Shane is almost two years sober and working teaching underprivileged kids. The two reconnect when Shane visits NY to attend a literary event and find that the spark is as strong as ever.
This was so refreshing. Not only does it feature a female lead who’s a single mum and dealing with a chronic pain condition, but both romantic leads are black. I really enjoyed Eva’s relationship with Audre and thought that the representation of her disability was handled really well. It was also great to read about characters who were so unapologetically black and for the book to not only comment on the challenges they face but celebrate their successes, especially through the lens of the literary world.
I’m not usually a big second chance romance fan but I was committed here. I loved the idea of Eva and Shane having this electric connection but the timing just being wrong because they hadn’t had the time and space to develop into the people they were meant to be yet. The fact that their bond had such a profound impact on them that it basically shaped their novels was pretty romantic, too. However, I wish that the flashbacks to their original week together had been expanded on slightly to better reinforce its impact as they felt somewhat brief and drug-hazed at times.
Writing-wise, I think SDIJ strikes a fantastic balance between levity, romance, and drama. While the side characters are fun and Eva & Shane have great chemistry, you still feel the weight of the story’s intense themes. Although, one negative for me was the amount of pop culture references and slang terms which, at times, made the book feel like it was trying too hard to sound young and cool. It’s also likely to date quickly going forward.
The characters were really well written. Both Eva and Shane felt like complex, real people with histories, dreams, fears and demons. I loved reading about the positive trajectory their lives had taken despite having to battle against immense hardship. I really wish we’d gotten more info about Eva’s family history, though, because it sounded so interesting!
This was a great read and I strongly recommend it if you enjoy slightly more dramatic contemporary romances.
Phew! We’re done. Ten reviews. I need a nap. A long one. I don’t think I’ve ever written this many book reviews so close together in my life. How do you review-everything type bloggers do this? Anyway, moving on to the rankings.
Official GRCA Results
FYI, this is how the books ranked in the awards based on the number of votes submitted:
I had a couple of books that ended up with the same star rating so I did have a dilemma organising things, especially when it came to the 4 star reads. In the end, this is where I settled:
I feel like a cliche but I loved The Love Hypothesis so it takes my number one spot. I’m always shocked when I buy into the hype train. With Eve Brown, It Happened One Summer and Seven Days in June, it just came down to overall enjoyment level because these were all great reads. I’m sad that I didn’t love People we Meet on Vacation as much as others did (seeing as it won the awards), but I’ll still be reading Henry’s next book. Two books I didn’t really understand the obsession with were The Spanish Love Deception and Neon Gods, both of which have been crazy popular on Booktube (or so I’ve heard) However, I’d still be willing to try other books from the authors.
Okay, I’m officially romanced out for the moment (well, except for a romance ARC that I really need to get to soon). This was definitely a challenge but I like that I managed to do it (even though I started to wonder why after three 2.5 or lower books in a row).
Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think and what are your thoughts on my ranking order?