Amanda Diehl

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When Tessa Bailey’s Bellinger Sisters (It Happened One Summer and Hook, Line, and Sinker) duology went megaviral on TikTok, readers everywhere learned what romance fans had known for years: If you want rom-com hijinks and a high heat level, there is no one better than Bailey. Her latest book, Secretly Yours, is a steamy opposites-attract love story that will only increase her legion of admirers.

Secretly Yours is the start to a new duology, A Vine Mess. Can you tell us a little bit about this new book and the overall setting for the series?
The setting is Napa! After writing a series in the misty Pacific Northwest, I was in the mood for a sun-drenched vineyard. In this duology, we’re going to find love for the Vos siblings; they are heirs to a vineyard that is influential and respected but has perhaps seen better days. Julian Vos, a regimented history professor, is my first victim in Secretly Yours. He begins receiving mysterious love letters at the same exact time that he begins falling for his gardener, Hallie, a free spirit who flouts convention and comes with a trio of slobbery dogs. Julian is fiercely attracted to Hallie. Even though he is positive they could never work as a couple, he can’t stop fabricating reasons to see her. 

Since wine and vineyards feature prominently, did you do any research on winemaking or vineyard upkeep?
Yes, I drank a lot of wine as my main form of research and found it very educational. I also watched a lot of documentaries on winemaking. The process is a lot more complicated than I could have imagined. There is no set method or recipe for wine. It is a constantly evolving art form, especially with new technology. If I learned anything from the eight documentaries I binged, it’s that grapes are extremely temperamental, vintners are more like scientists and I just want to drink the wine. There are a lot of great vineyards within driving distance of where I live on Long Island, New York, and they served as inspiration for my Napa setting.  

“I drank a lot of wine as my main form of research and found it very educational.”

Hallie and Julian are total opposites in a grumpy-meets-sunshine sort of way: Hallie is bubbly and upbeat, while Julian is more on the stuffy side. What do you enjoy about writing an opposites-attract romance? Do you have an ultimate favorite trope to write?
I cannot seem to quit opposites-attract romances. There is something very satisfying about two extremely different personality types finding common ground. There are so many opportunities for them to teach each other new perspectives on everyday life and really unlock something momentous in each other. For instance, in Secretly Yours, Hallie has an organic, unplanned approach to flower placement. Julian wants rows and structure, but when he sees Hallie’s finished product, he acknowledges that the lack of structure is what makes the garden beautiful and interesting.

My favorite trope to write is enemies to lovers, but the storyline must be very specific for me to fall in love enough to write a book of that nature. It’s important to me that, while the hero might be an “enemy” at first, he actually has a soft, Tootsie Roll center when it comes to the heroine. 

At times, Julian and Hallie’s diverging personalities create conflict between them. How did you balance making these two people so different while still giving them a workable path toward happily ever after?
I really think it goes back to perspective. Julian has this rigid, almost unrealistic schedule. Every moment of the day is accounted for. Due to some past trauma, he believes the careful life balance he has created in order to preserve his mental health will collapse if he doesn’t adhere to his strict daily plans. But he learns through observing Hallie (and constantly having his schedule interrupted by her and the pooches) that everything doesn’t collapse if his plans get derailed.

On the opposite end, Hallie learns that a little structure won’t kill her. It’s really rewarding to take characters on a journey that allows them to see the world differently and learn something about their own resilience. 

Book jacket image for Secretly Yours by Tessa Bailey

Why did you decide to have Julian receive physical love letters rather than “wrong number” texts or anonymous social media messages?
I took the old-school route because physical letters are more classically romantic and felt more appropriate for this particular series. Letters are a Big Gesture. They would be more of a surprise to receive than a direct message on social media, and have a little more gravity to them. If someone took the time to write words on actual paper and send them to me, in my opinion, those words would carry a lot of weight. 

While Secretly Yours has funny moments and great banter, Julian and Hallie are also dealing with serious things. Julian has anxiety and experiences panic attacks, while Hallie is grieving the death of her grandmother. How do you keep a romance from feeling too light or too dark?
This is the challenge going into a modern romantic comedy. Readers expect there to be high stakes on the road to happily ever after. We don’t need the path to be easy, simply because the book has humorous situations or a humorous tone. A lot of us deal with the heavier aspects of life by laughing or creating levity. So that is my balancing act—making sure there is depth to the characters and their struggles, while also making sure the champagne bubble, fizzy feeling of romance is on the page. I can usually feel when I need a more poignant scene or if the story needs a break from carrying a heavy emotional load. It’s just a sixth sense. Time for a food fight!

For those who may be picking up a Tessa Bailey book for the first time, what can they expect? What’s the recipe for a Bailey romance? 
Heat, humor and heart. In one of my books, a reader can expect lovable, relatable characters who are usually at a transition point in their lives—such a coincidence that they happen to meet their love interest at the same time! Expect to laugh and potentially even get a little misty during the quieter moments. Perhaps most notably, expect open-door love scenes. Like, way the heck open. 

Read our review of ‘Secretly Yours’ by Tessa Bailey.

As someone who has read many a Bailey romance, I know things can get pretty steamy. Where would you rate this one on a scale of 1 to 10?
I usually put my books around a 7, but it’s all a matter of perspective. Some will say 10! Others will say 5. A lot of readers lately come to my books having been fooled by the cute, illustrated cover into expecting a closed-door rom-com, but there will always, always be ample steam in my books. I love experiencing the more intimate moments with my characters and putting them in those vulnerable scenes on the page. Their walls come down and they connect on a physical level . . . and afterward, something usually goes wrong. Like one of them gets a job offer in Milwaukee. Mwahaha. Romance writers are evil at their cores. 

What can we expect in book two, Unfortunately Yours? Who will be the main couple?
In the second book of the Vine Mess duet, we get Natalie Vos and August Cates’ love story. This book owns a massive chunk of my heart—there was just some extra magic sprinkled into it. I can now say definitively that I’ve written my favorite hero of all time. It’s enemies to lovers, marriage of convenience and forced proximity. All the banter. A prank war. And a pesky cat. We meet Natalie and August in Secretly Yours, so I hope readers will be excited for their book.

What have you been reading lately? What books should readers have on their radar?
The last book I read was Before I Let Go by Kennedy Ryan, and it blew me away. It’s a second-chance romance between a divorced couple. They have older kids and a business together, so there are a lot of fraught interactions and high stakes. It’s mature and riveting and feels oh, so real. The tension, emotional and sexual, is top-notch. I highly, highly recommend it. Kennedy knocked it out of the park.

Photo of Tessa Bailey by Nisha Ver Halen.

The bestselling author’s Secretly Yours is the perfect blend of sweet and steamy.
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In Trish Doller’s Off the Map, two lost souls find each other during a road trip across Ireland. 

Carla Black is a bit of a rolling stone, traveling the world in her old Jeep Wrangler. She’s careful not to stay in one place too long, form attachments or put down roots. Her next adventure is a drive through the Irish countryside to attend her best friend’s wedding. The groom’s best friend, Eamon Sullivan, has been tasked with meeting up with Carla in Dublin and helping her navigate to the venue.

The attraction is immediate when the pair meet at a local pub, and they end the night by hooking up in Eamon’s apartment. It’s refreshing to see two characters recognize their connection, satisfy their curiosity and handle the morning after like adults, especially since they’ll be stuck in a car together for a few days. 

Close quarters lead to more nights together, but also deep conversations. Traveling is one of Cara’s last ways of connecting with her father, whose early onset dementia is getting progressively worse. She’s been honoring his love of travel by seeing the world on her own, but she wonders how sustainable and healthy her nomadic lifestyle really is. Meanwhile, Eamon realizes he’s never prioritized himself and his own dreams of venturing outside Ireland. 

The trip is only supposed to take a few hours, but Carla’s penchant for exploration and Eamon’s desire to start taking more risks in life have the two of them taking all manner of beautiful, disastrous and hilarious detours in the Irish countryside. Doller’s detailed prose creates a noticeable sense of wonder as readers experience Ireland from the perspectives of both a first-timer and a local who is learning to look at the land with a new set of eyes. With its lush pine woods and mischievous herds of sheep, Off the Map could have been commissioned by Ireland’s board of tourism.

Steamier than the previous books in Doller’s Beck Sisters series (Float Plan, The Suite Spot), Off the Map is a sexy romp across the rolling green hills of Ireland. It’s easy to forget that Carla and Eamon have somewhere to be and can’t spend the entirety of their trip tucked away in the corner of a cozy pub or dancing beneath the stars. Romantic and whimsical, Off the Map will leave readers craving adventure and perhaps even tempt them into booking a trip to the Emerald Isle.

A romance that takes place during a sexy and whimsical Ireland vacation, Off the Map will leave readers craving a vacation to the Emerald Isle.
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In Happy Place, New York Times bestselling author Emily Henry returns with a tender contemporary romance full of vulnerability, growth and love.

Every year for the last decade, college sweethearts-turned-engaged couple Harriet and Wyn have joined their friends at a cottage in Maine for a weeklong getaway. It’s something they’ve always looked forward to—but not this year. Because Harriet and Wyn broke up six months ago, and they haven’t told their friends yet. Uncertain of how the group will take the news, they don’t want a cloud hanging over their very last trip to the cottage, which is going up for sale.

For a whole week, Harriet and Wyn must play the part of a couple in love to preserve their ruse, including sharing the cozy master bedroom. As the vacation plays out, Harriet and Wyn get over their initial nervousness and fall back into sweet little routines and playful banter as their passion for each other resurfaces. The trip might be just what Harriet and Wyn need to find each other again.

Happy Place feels very much like the Henry that fans have come to adore through rom-coms such as People We Meet on Vacation and Book Lovers, but this time with the added complexity of a larger cast. Harriet and Wyn’s coupledom is one of the foundations of their close-knit friend group, and Henry illustrates the benefits and challenges of being in a relationship that’s also a vital part of a community. Happy Place also makes room to explore one of Henry’s perennial concerns: how women internalize misogyny and societal pressures. Harriet is an overworked surgical resident, and her aversion to causing waves and speaking up about her own wants, needs and limits has pushed her to a breaking point. Her placative nature leads her to stew in her own stress, constantly pushing things down and never relieving her simmering anxiety. In addition to regaining her connection with Wyn, the week at the cottage teaches Harriet that her problems—whether romantic, professional or emotional—don’t have to be shouldered alone.

Harriet and Wyn’s chemistry is effervescent, bubbling up each time they remember how and why they fell in love in the first place. They’re the perfect combination of sweet, sexy and silly, and it’s obvious why everyone (including, eventually and undoubtedly, the reader) is rooting for their happily ever after. Happy Place proves that Henry is a writer with “no skips,” her oeuvre as expertly crafted as a perfect summer playlist.

Emily Henry’s effervescent and tender Happy Place is as expertly crafted as a perfect summer playlist.
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Author Uzma Jalaluddin returns with another classic love story retelling set in Toronto’s Muslim community. While her last romance took inspiration from ’90s rom-com classic You’ve Got Mail, Much Ado About Nada offers a contemporary twist on Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Nada Syed feels blocked, both professionally and personally. She had high hopes for her app Ask Apa, which would have offered users culturally sensitive advice. But after being betrayed by a business partner, she finds herself working an engineering job that stifles her creativity and desire to do good. With her 30th birthday on the horizon, she’s questioning all the decisions that have led to her being single, living with her parents and failing to become the successful tech CEO she’s always dreamed of being.

Haleema, Nada’s best friend, thinks attending Deen&Dunya, a Muslim conference full of fandom and fun, will help Nada get out of her rut. Haleema’s fiancé, Zayn, and his brother, Baz, are joining them, but unbeknownst to Haleema, Nada and Baz have a long and tumultuous history. Despite being thrown together for the duration of the conference, both Nada and Baz want to keep their complicated feelings for each other a secret. 

Jalaluddin has a real talent for crafting protagonists, and Nada is just as complex and enjoyable as the heroines of Ayesha at Last and Hana Khan Carries On. Nada faces all the unfair societal and familial pressures that can weigh on women as they enter their 30s, and her feeling of a giant clock ticking away her remaining time to accomplish goals will hit home for a lot of readers. Jalaluddin adds depth and specificity to this experience by showing how these pressures manifest in Nada’s Muslim community and family. 

Nada and Baz’s cheeky romance is the perfect balance to Much Ado About Nada’s social commentary. Their interactions sizzle with sexual tension as they dance around each other, and their adorable mutual attraction is charmingly obvious to everyone but them. Baz and Nada’s eventual union is a sure thing from the moment they reunite, but it’s still a delight to see them get there in their own time. 

One of the best things about Jalaluddin’s work is the sheer amount of joy she brings to her characters, her writing and her happily ever afters. She clearly delights in reinventing known classics, using beloved heroines as a foundation to create modern women who don’t want or need to sacrifice their ambitions for other parts of their lives. With Much Ado About Nada, Jalaluddin has written yet another winner—and this time it’s one with a particularly heartwarming, tender and feminist resolution.

Uzma Jalaluddin’s Much Ado About Nada is a heartwarming, tender and utterly winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
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By day, Tara Chen, the heroine of Amy Lea’s Exes and O’s, works as a nurse. In her free time, she shares her love of romance novels on Instagram and TikTok. However, despite being an avid supporter of love, her own personal track record hasn’t been successful. Prompted by the end of her engagement, she decides to track down 10 of her exes to learn more about why their relationships ended. Best-case scenario? One of them realizes he’s made a terrible mistake, and Tara finds herself in a real-life second-chance romance. 

Tara’s new roommate, Trevor Metcalfe, is a firefighter who takes a casual approach to relationships. While Tara and Trevor don’t see eye to eye on love, he’s more than happy to be her wingman in her quest for romance. As Tara invests more and more time seeking out old flames, it becomes increasingly obvious that her happily ever after is with the sweet and supportive tattooed firefighter by her side. 

Tara’s unabashed love of romance novels will deeply resonate with fans of the genre. No matter the social media platform, romance lovers have a knack for finding community, and it’s lovely to see that depicted in Tara’s experiences as an influencer. She speaks the lingo fluently, which feels like a delightful inside joke between her and the reader.

Those who enjoy a slow-burn love story will especially want to bump this to the top of their to-be-read pile. Tara’s affable and friendly demeanor often catches Trevor adorably off guard, especially when she attempts to befriend his hookups. Helping Tara with her quest allows Trevor to examine his own way of approaching relationships and figure out why he’s been so avoidant of long-lasting attachments. 

Lea’s voice is so bright and witty that the more emotional parts of the story will sneak up on even the savviest romance readers. Exes and O’s is equal parts tender and laugh-out-loud funny, with an earnest appreciation for the genre singing loudly from every page. With her sophomore novel, Lea proves she’s here to stay. As for what comes next? The sky’s the limit.

Exes and O’s is equal parts tender and laugh-out-loud funny, with an earnest appreciation for the romance genre singing loudly from every page.
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Author Olivia Dade returns with the highly anticipated third installment in her Spoiler Alert series, Ship Wrecked, an opposites-attract romance that begins with a one-night stand.

Sociable, lively Swedish actor Maria Ivarsson and reserved Wisconsinite Peter Reedton share a steamy night together, after which Maria sneaks out while Peter is asleep. Neither thought they’d ever see each other again, but they’re abruptly reunited when they both land a role on “Gods of the Gates,” an epic fantasy TV show. Their chemistry in the bedroom definitely translates on screen, but old baggage also bubbles up during their scenes together. Maria’s actions tapped into Peter’s long-held insecurities, and even though she regrets leaving the way she did, he would rather just move on. Peter’s not about to ruin both of their acting careers by airing out their dirty laundry on set, so they work together as amicably as possible—for six whole years. But as the show approaches its final episode, their pent-up feelings begin to resurface. Can Peter and Maria walk away a second time? 

Ship Wrecked is quite the slow-burn romance, given that its central couple keep each other at a professional arm’s length for over half a decade. Maria wants to make things up to Peter but worries that doing so will reveal the depths of her attraction to him, which never fades. As they settle into a cordial working relationship that slowly evolves into a friendship, they realize how well they complement each other. The affable and brash Maria gets Peter out of his shell, and Peter, who is an absolute sweetheart and a true cinnamon roll, provides a calm shelter where Maria can rest. It’s particularly lovely to see Dade’s passion for promoting body diversity in romance extend to a male character, an area in which the genre still has a lot of room for improvement.  

This rom-com definitely emphasizes the “com,” with Dade’s trademark blend of nerdy love, sexy banter and comedic shenanigans, but there’s still space for more serious notes, such as Peter’s and Maria’s individual struggles with the mental and emotional toll of being in the spotlight. Ship Wrecked is a charming, tender exploration of acceptance, celebrity and getting a second chance to make a lasting and loving impression.

In Olivia Dade’s charming, sexy Ship Wrecked, a one-night stand leads to a six-year slow-burn romance.
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Katee Robert’s Wicked Beauty, the third installment in her extremely popular Dark Olympus series, is a modern feminist reimagining of the Iliad‘s Helen, Achilles and Patroclus. 

In the previous two novels, Robert introduced readers to her version of Olympus, a glamorous city where the names of the 13 major Greek gods are titles that are either won or inherited. While the first two books in the series portrayed iconic mythological couples like Hades and Persephone, Wicked Beauty breaks with tradition to pair Helen of Troy with Achilles and Patroclus as all three characters compete to become the new Ares, the commander of Olympus’ army.

As second in command in Athena’s elite band of warriors, Achilles is a top contender to win the role of Ares. Patroclus, his best friend and lover, doesn’t have any desire to take the title, but he’s all too happy to join the games for the sole purpose of helping Achilles win. They’re self-assured and just the right amount of smarmy, which makes it doubly satisfying to watch their confidence falter when Helen enters the competition.

Helen has been a pawn in Olympus’ power struggles for her entire life, and she is over it. She’s struggled to get out from under the thumb of her manipulative ex, Paris, and is on the verge of being married off for political gain by her brother, who recently became the new Zeus. If she wins the title of Ares, she’ll finally be free to make her own mark on the world. Everyone doubts her, thinking she’s nothing more than a pretty face, and there are plenty of fist-pumping moments as she uses that doubt to gain the upper hand.

Wicked Beauty is an absolutely scorching, off-the-charts steamy romance. The combination of cutthroat action and sexual tension makes this book a fast-paced, unrelenting page turner. As the contest grows deadlier, it becomes clear that someone is out to permanently eliminate Helen. When Achilles’ and Patroclus’ protective instincts kick in, they add rocket fuel to both their relationship with Helen and the increasingly adrenaline-pumping competition. 

Readers should prepare for a luxurious, sinfully delightful experience that they’ll try but fail to savor—because it’s all but impossible to put Wicked Beauty down.

Katee Robert's Wicked Beauty is a scorching romance that reimagines Helen, Achilles and Patroclus in a polyamorous relationship.
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A fake relationship is on the menu in Natalie Caña’s debut, A Proposal They Can’t Refuse, which follows a passionate chef and a whiskey distiller as they plot to save their business while outsmarting their grandfathers. It’s an enemies-to-lovers romance with a heaping spoonful of meddling families.

Talented chef Kamilah Vega feels held back at her family’s Puerto Rican restaurant, El Coquí. Their customer base has been dwindling, and Kamilah thinks that modernizing the restaurant and getting it on the upcoming Fall Foodie Tour is just the thing to breathe new life into the business. Her grandfather, the restaurant’s owner, gives Kamilah the green light on one condition: He wants her to marry his best friend’s grandson, Liam Kane. 

Liam’s grandfather’s dying wish is to see his grandson married, and he’s not above concocting a bit of blackmail to nudge Liam along. Liam works for his family’s Irish whiskey distillery, which shares a building with El Coqun. And if Liam doesn’t get married to Kamilah, his grandfather will sell the building that houses their businesses. Once childhood friends, Liam and Kamilah’s relationship severely soured as they became adults. But now they are united with a common goal: fake their way through a romance until they can figure out a Plan B.

Liam and Kamilah are wonderful, prickly fun together, especially when they’re bickering (which is most of the time). They gamely play along with their grandfathers’ outlandish demands, and it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s some lingering fondness under their antagonism. As the two rediscover their old friendship, Caña fills the world around them with nosy relatives, opinionated friends and plenty of workplace hijinks. No detail is spared when it comes to describing Kamilah’s bright, flavorful creations in the kitchen or the heady and luxurious ways whiskey is distilled and consumed. Foodie romances are having a moment, and A Proposal They Can’t Refuse is a particularly delicious addition to the trend. Be prepared to get hungrier and hungrier with each page. 

A Proposal They Can’t Refuse is a mouthwatering delight with a lively and winsome cast, snappy banter, cooking as foreplay and two romantic leads worth rooting for every step of the way. The only thing readers will be left longing for is a corresponding cookbook or cocktail guide.

A Proposal They Can't Refuse is a mouthwatering delight with cooking as foreplay and two romantic leads worth rooting for every step of the way.
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After years of growing his increasingly passionate fanbase with independent and digital-first novels, Alexis Hall achieved mainstream popularity—and hit the bestseller list—in 2020 with the witty London-set rom-com, Boyfriend Material. The equally successful Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake followed a year later, and now the British author is conquering historical romance with A Lady for a Duke.

Being presumed dead after fighting in the Battle of Waterloo gave Viola Carroll the chance to live as the woman she has always been, but it came at the cost of her best friend. Two years later, Justin de Vere, the Duke of Gracewood, is still devastated by Viola’s supposed death and has become a recluse. Viola travels to his estate to try and help him, even though doing so could destroy the new life she’s built. We talked to Hall about the thorny questions that come with writing about queer characters in a historical setting and why he’s such a prolific author. (A Lady for a Duke is his second release in 2022, with two more to come!)

It’s been a busy few years! Do you ever sleep?
Well, I don’t sleep much, and I have no social life. I kind of joke about this, but it’s genuinely not sustainable for me. Basically, because the market changed quite a lot and quite quickly in terms of how receptive people are to queer romance, this is sort of the first time in my career that these kinds of opportunities have been possible for me. So I did what any reasonably neurotic person would have done and said yes to everything. Which does mean my life is temporarily on hold. I’m hoping to get to a more sensible pace in a year or two.

Are you a fastidious organizer when it comes to drafting or is it a more chaotic process?
This feels like a nonanswer but sort of both? The answer I usually give to the plotter versus pantser question is that it fails to take into account that pretty much all books go through multiple drafts and you need to use different techniques at different parts of the process. Like, I’ll usually have an outline for the first draft, but then the first draft is itself kind of the outline for the second draft. And there have been books that have looked, in their final form, quite similar to how they looked when they started, but there are others that are almost unrecognizable. So I guess I’m organized when I need to be organized and chaotic when I need to be chaotic. To be fair, I’m sometimes also chaotic when I need to be organized.

“It was important to me . . . that neither the text nor really anyone in the text should meaningfully question that Viola is a woman.”

A Lady for a Duke takes place after the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, which Viola fought in and after which she was presumed dead. Why did you choose to make Waterloo the pivotal turning point in her life?
Firstly, and most simply, Waterloo is a big, iconic, central feature of the Regency, and I wanted to engage with it in a meaningful way. It was kind of one of the most devastating military conflicts that Europe had ever seen, so that feels . . . significant? Otherwise, it would be like setting a book in 1916 and never mentioning the First World War.

The other reason is a bit more narratively focused. It was important to me from very early on in the conception of the book that neither the text nor really anyone in the text should meaningfully question that Viola is a woman because, frankly, I don’t think anyone benefits from fiction legitimizing that particular “debate.” And so that meant I needed Viola to have transitioned and to be comfortable in her identity from the moment she arrived on page. In that context, Waterloo gives depth to the life she lived and the choices she made in the past, while providing a source of conflict between her and Gracewood that’s not related to her gender identity.

Viola’s first interactions with Justin are some of the most emotionally fraught moments in the entire book. How did you ensure the poignancy of these moments without slowing down the pace?
I always feel bad about these crafty kinds of questions because I feel like people are expecting a more insightful answer than I actually have. I mean, the short answer is “I don’t know, and I suspect some readers will think I didn’t.”

But I think some of it, partially, is just trusting my audience. One of the hardest (and most freeing) things about writing genre romance is that people recognize that the emotions are the plot. I mean, you can have other plots as well, but it’s not like you’re ever going to get a romance reader saying, “Nothing happened in this book except some people got together, where are the explosions?”

Read our starred review of ‘A Lady for a Duke.’

How is writing about queer love in the Regency era different from writing a contemporary queer romance?
In some respects, it isn’t. The philosophy I tend to take about writing in a historical setting is to keep clear sight of the fact that I’m still a modern writer writing a modern book for a modern audience. And how far I’ll steer into that will vary quite a lot. For example, my other Regency series is unabashedly, absurdly modern in pretty much all of its sensibilities, and some readers don’t like that, and that’s fine. But I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with writing historical fiction like A Knight’s Tale instead of The Lion in Winter.

That said, I think there are some decisions you have to make consciously that, in contemporary fiction, you’re allowed to make unconsciously. Readers often have quite specific expectations about how being LGBTQ+ should be presented in a historical setting, and those aren’t always expectations I’m going to agree with or play into.

I think one of the more subtle questions it’s important to address in writing a queer love story in a historical environment is whether you are going to use modern perceptions of identity or, as best you can, historical perceptions of identity. On the one hand, it is correct to say that relationships and experiences that we would today attach specific labels to have always existed. But, on the other hand, neither those labels nor the often quite complex set of assumptions that go with those labels would have made sense to people in a historical setting.

My general take comes back to what I said about keeping in mind that I’m writing for a modern audience. It’s ultimately more important to me that my queer stories resonate with modern queer readers than it is for them to portray what I think a person at the time might actually have perceived their identity to be. Not least because that’s unknowable.

“One of the hardest (and most freeing) things about writing genre romance is that people recognize that the emotions are the plot.”

A Lady for a Duke

Both the cover model for Viola and the audiobook narrator of A Lady for a Duke are trans women. Why was it important to you to involve trans women in the process of bringing this book to life? And how did you feel the first time you saw its gorgeous cover?
Who can represent whom and in what media is a complex question that doesn’t necessarily have clear generalizable answers. For example, I’m not sure I could readily articulate why I felt it was important to have a trans woman narrating Viola (or why I tend to feel that it’s important to have POC voice actors narrating books with POC protagonists) but haven’t felt so strongly about having voice actors who match the identities of my gay or bisexual characters. I’m also deeply aware that this isn’t a topic that I have authority to pontificate on, and in many ways I am just kind of guided by instinct. For what it’s worth, I do have another book (The Affair of the Mysterious Letter) in which the trans male narrator was portrayed by a cis man in the audiobook because, at the time, I couldn’t find a British trans man to do it. Ultimately I think that was an acceptable second best, and the voice actor did a great job, but I think I’d have felt bad if I could have had a trans voice actor for A Lady for a Duke but gave the job to a cis person anyway.

One of the things I wanted to do with A Lady for a Duke (and I’m far from the first person to do it) is to contribute to the normalization of trans people within romance in general and historical romance in particular. And perhaps I’m wrong, but I hope having Violet looking gorgeous as Viola on the cover and Kay Eluvian doing a fantastic job narrating the audiobook helps to communicate that trans people belong here as much as cis people do.

And yes, the cover is perfect and I love it.

Tell us about the research you did for this book. What did you learn that surprised you?

The first thing I’d say is that it’s worth remembering that the Regency is an incredibly tiny bit of history both spatially and temporally. Like, not only did it cover just nine years of actual time (1811–1820), but if we’re talking about the specific community that people are usually talking about when they’re talking about the Regency, we’re talking about the 10,000 richest people in England. And, in fact, if you narrow it down to the subset of people that historical romance tends to focus on (which is to say, dukes and people who directly interacted with dukes), you’re getting into the low hundreds.

On top of that, there’s the broader issue that I’ve loosely touched on already, which is that the language we use to describe LGBTQ+ identities and experiences in the present day only really applies to the present day. So, for example, we do know a certain amount about molly houses, which were brothels/social clubs in the late 18th century (which, honestly, were kind of fading out by the Regency) where men would go to have sex with each other, sometimes cross-dress and sometimes do sham weddings and even sham births. But none of that can necessarily be assumed to map onto any specific identity as we understand it today.

“I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with writing historical fiction like A Knight’s Tale instead of The Lion in Winter.”

Similarly, there have always been people who have lived as a gender that is not the gender they were assigned at birth (although, obviously, the only ones we know about are the ones who were outed, either during their lives or post-mortem), but we can’t necessarily know how those individuals understood their identities. It gets particularly complex when you’re talking about people who were assigned female at birth and lived as men. Hannah Snell, for example, dressed as a man to fight in a war but afterward told her own story in a way that very strongly framed her as a woman who had dressed as a man to fight in a war. But there are also people like Dr. James Barry who lived as men during their lifetimes and made it very clear that they wanted to be thought of, known and remembered as men after their deaths.

An ongoing problem with queer history in general and trans history in particular is you can’t prove how a person really thought about themselves, and mainstream culture tends to demand a very high burden of proof. Dr. James Barry is a really good example. Here we have a man who lived as a man, explicitly stated he was a man and wanted to be remembered as a man, but most of his biographies present him as a woman who cross-dressed to access privileged male spheres. And while I’m not a historian, as a human being my personal feeling is that if someone says they’re a man, you should, like, believe them.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing A Lady for a Duke?
In any romance book, you need an emotional nadir of some kind, because otherwise the journey toward the happily ever after can feel like it lacks stakes or tension. This usually happens at 70% into the story, but that didn’t feel right for this book.

I knew the main source of conflict was going to be what happened at Waterloo, but the idea of having that hanging over the book, the characters and the reader for 200 to 300 pages was just super grim. Viola and Gracewood also have a lot to work through both personally and socially, and I didn’t think I’d be able to squoosh that into the last third of the book. All of which meant that I actually hit the emotional nadir at about (spoiler) 30% or 40%. And because of that change in structure, it took some finessing to make sure the rest of the book still felt like it had something to say and the characters had somewhere to go.

What have you been reading lately?
I recently read a phenomenal contemporary rom-com called The Romantic Agenda by Claire Kann. It’s kind of a riff on My Best Friend’s Wedding, but it centralizes two asexual characters who are navigating their complicated relationship with each other while falling in love with other people. The heroine, Joy, is an absolute joy. And I think it’s just one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read.

I also loved The Stand-In by Lily Chu, another contemporary rom-com. This one has a zany “Oh, you look exactly like a famous film star” premise, but it’s actually incredibly grounded and tender, exploring the importance of all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones.

Oh, and Siren Queen by Nghi Vo is breathtakingly good. It’s a magical, dark fairy-tale take on pre-code Hollywood about a queer Asian American film star who makes a name for herself playing monsters, since she won’t faint, do an accent or take a maid role. It’s incredibly intense but, at its heart, exquisitely kind. One of those books you feel genuinely humbled to have read.

We spoke with Alexis Hall, master of the contemporary rom-com, about what it was like to take on the Regency era in A Lady for a Duke.
Review by

Following the Battle of Waterloo, Viola Carroll abandoned her previous identity, as well as her aristocratic title, to finally embrace life as a trans woman. Allowing the world to believe she had been killed in action, Viola took on the role of companion to her sister-in-law, Lady Louise Marleigh.

But Viola’s dearest friend, Justin de Vere, the Duke of Gracewood, is not coping so well. He drowns himself in alcohol and opium to cope with his despair over Viola’s death, the lingering pain of a war injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Louise determines that she and Viola must intervene, and so they travel to Gracewood’s ancestral home, Castle Morgencald.

The term “slow burn” doesn’t begin to capture the agonized pining of this romance, which is absolutely suffused with yearning. Hall poignantly depicts Viola’s tangled mix of relief and sadness upon being reunited with Gracewood. Viola has nurtured a quiet hope that their connection to each other would be undeniable—that Gracewood would know and accept her without a second’s thought. But if he doesn’t, she agonizes over telling him that she’s the friend he’s long thought dead, knowing that revealing her identity could ruin the new life she’s built for herself. Some of the most emotionally fraught scenes in the novel are when Hall focuses on Gracewood’s inner turmoil, empathetically portraying a once powerful, nearly untouchable man who is overwhelmed by trauma.

How Alexis Hall is seizing his moment.

Hall adds some levity with flirtatious banter between his main couple, moments when readers can see the dark cloud hovering over Gracewood become a little lighter. There’s also a robust and interesting cast of side characters, which could mean (fingers crossed) A Lady for a Duke is but the first book in a series.

Hall first hit the bestseller list in 2020 with Boyfriend Material, a contemporary rom-com, and his fanbase has been growing ever since. Now that the British writer has hit it out of the park with this emotionally resonant, character-driven Regency romance, readers’ biggest question (besides “Is there anything Alexis Hall can’t do?”) will be “What will Alexis Hall think of next?” No matter what it is, it’ll be nuanced, swoony and a stellar example of what romance can do—just like A Lady for a Duke.

Alexis Hall takes on the Regency with his angsty new historical romance, A Lady for a Duke.
Review by

Hugo Award winner T. Kingfisher’s Nettle & Bone is a dark, feminist fantasy that follows an unlikely heroine as she takes matters into her own hands to free her sister and other women from a cyclical system of abuse.

Princess Marra is shy and seemingly forgettable, content with being sent to a convent rather than married off for political gain. But when she learns of the death of her oldest sister, Damia, most likely at the hands of her husband, Prince Vorling, Marra worries that her other sister, Kania, will suffer the same fate. She’s destined to be Vorling’s second wife, after all.

Embarking on a quest to save what remains of her family, Marra turns to the dust-wife, a necromancer whose familiar is a demon-possessed chicken. The dust-wife tasks Marra with building a dog of bones, sewing a cloak of nettles and capturing moonlight in a jar. As Marra attempts to accomplish the impossible, she slowly assembles a team worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster montage. First, there’s Bonedog, whose creation occurs in the first chapter, an instantly gripping flash-forward to Marra midquest. Then there’s Agnes, Marra’s neurotic fairy godmother whose abilities are limited to granting good health. Rounding out the group is Fenris, a diplomatic knight who seems to have a bit of a death wish.

Fans of Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel trilogy will recognize her trademark blend of bleak world building and an affable cast of underdog characters. Marra’s evolution is an inspiration. She becomes a more confident version of herself as she works to save her sister, and then expands her mission once she realizes that if her vengeance remains focused on just Prince Vorling, it will leave many more women still in danger. But while Nettle & Bone is undeniably dark and sinister at times, Kingfisher balances the horror with well-placed levity. Any road trip is instantly made better by a demonic chicken, and who wouldn’t love a curious, energetic dog to tag along, even if he is made of bones? The more comedic characters allow readers to find comfort amid the larger, darker scope of the novel, bright spots in a world that can often feel hopeless.

Kingfisher is an inventive fantasy powerhouse, and Nettle & Bone represents the burgeoning “hopepunk” ethos at its finest, with its winsome characters and focus on their fight to make the world a better place.

Nettle & Bone is the burgeoning “hopepunk” ethos at its finest: a dark fantasy starring a demon-possessed chicken and a feminist avenger.

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