Amanda Diehl

A woman in search of a husband finds one with more than his fair share of deadly secrets in the latest atmospheric, well-plotted horror novel from author Caitlin Starling.

The Death of Jane Lawrence takes place in an alternate version of Victorian-era Britain, known as Great Bretlain. The eponymous heroine is headstrong, wonderfully smart and knows that to live independently, she must wed. It seems illogical, but finding the right man would allow Jane to continue her own hobbies and pursuits, as a married woman is afforded far more freedom than an unmarried maiden.

Bachelor Augustine Lawrence, the only doctor in town, seems like a fine option for Jane. He agrees without too much fuss, under one simple condition: Jane must never visit his ancestral home. She’s to spend her nights above his medical practice, while he retires to Lindridge Hall for the evening. Eventually, of course, Jane finds herself spending the night at Lindridge Hall following a carriage accident, and where she slowly and methodically uncovers the skeletons lurking in Augustine’s closet.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The year's best Halloween reads, ranked from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.


Anyone who has ever read a gothic novel knows exactly where this is going, but Starling does a magnificent, twisted job steering clear of the obvious plot beats. There are surprises galore in the secrets these characters keep and the lengths they’ll go to conceal them. Key to many a successful horror novel is having a main character to root for, one whom readers will want to see come out of everything not only alive but also stronger. Jane is absolutely that kind of character, a beacon of light in a dark world through her sheer tenacity alone, making her exploration of Lindridge Hall a white-knuckle reading experience.

Fans of Starling’s debut, the sci-fi horror novel The Luminous Dead, will find the same steadily growing sense of eeriness here, despite the markedly different setting. Jane isn’t exploring caves on an alien planet, but her journey still feels claustrophobic, almost asphyxiated by the estate’s mysterious walls. Are the horrors she senses of a supernatural nature? Or are they merely born of a man with too many internal demons? “Both” is also an option, and Starling keeps readers guessing until the very end.

For those who crave intense and detailed gothic horror, or those who just want more Guillermo del Toro a la Crimson Peak vibes in their life, The Death of Jane Lawrence is a must-read.

A woman in search of a husband finds one with more than his fair share of deadly secrets in the latest atmospheric, well-plotted horror novel from author Caitlin Starling.

Penny Aimes’ debut romance, For the Love of April French, is a remarkable and tender story of acceptance, an exploration of self-reflection and a tantalizing slow burn between two compelling leads.

The eponymous April French has a complicated relationship with her Austin-area kink club. As a transgender woman, it's been her mission to make the community feel as inclusive as possible. But the group's members either see her as a supportive, maternal figure or a novelty, rather than as a potential romantic partner or kink participant. April is also still healing from an abusive dominant who took advantage of their power differentials.

Dennis Martin, a wealthy man originally from Seattle, is a newcomer to Austin. He carries his own baggage within the kink community, burdened by past mistakes he made as a new dom. He and his longtime partner experimented with BDSM, but their mutual inexperience led to broken trust and, eventually, the end of their relationship.

To call this romance a slow burn, while apt, wouldn’t fully do justice to Dennis and April’s love story. Their connection is instant, but both are extremely guarded and raw from past experiences. April is used to temporary fascination and assumes abandonment is imminent. While Dennis has done the work to become a more cognizant dom to his partners, he’s still wary of ruining that fragile relationship. Their sexual needs align, but so do their insecurities surrounding power and trust.

Aimes weaves in plenty of commentary on and positive portrayal of kink communities and the purpose they serve for their members. Consent is at the forefront of many interactions, providing examples of both enthusiastic consent and the dangers of miscommunication between partners. The layers of attraction are slowly peeled back as April and Dennis’ electric physical connection evolves into a relationship in which their emotional fears are laid bare. Though the romance between Dennis and April is in the foreground, Aimes also pays attention to both characters’ internal journeys toward forgiving themselves for their mistakes and finding the strength to persevere through past trauma. The romance is incredibly sweet, and the BDSM and kink scenes are off-the-charts hot. It’s a nearly seamless blend of cozy courtship and seductive, compelling eroticism between two soft, adorable nerds.

A nuanced depiction of kinky queer communities that is clearly written from a place of earnest love and appreciation, For the Love of April French proves that heartwarming fluff and sexy kink can go hand in hand. The only question that remains is, when can we have more from this rising star of romance?

Penny Aimes’ debut romance, For the Love of April French, is a remarkable and tender story of acceptance, an exploration of self-reflection and a tantalizing slow burn between two compelling leads.

The Heart Principle is easily one of the year’s most anticipated romances, as it stars a character who’s been a fan favorite ever since Helen Hoang’s 2018 debut, The Kiss Quotient. It’s finally time for charming, fashionable, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep to meet his match.

That match is Anna Sun, a violinist who recently went viral online and skyrocketed to success. But now she’s burned out creatively and emotionally, much to the dismay of her ambitious parents. What’s more, her longtime boyfriend proposes an open relationship instead of marriage. He’s surprised when she agrees, and even more surprised when Anna is actually motivated to find another partner for herself. When she comes across Quan’s profile on a dating app, she thinks he seems like a fun fling. But Quan exceeds her expectations with his supportive, sweet nature. Soon, Anna finds herself turning to Quan in stressful and upsetting situations, even more so after Anna’s father winds up in the hospital, which complicates their “casual” arrangement. 

Quan will instantly win over readers with his wonderful combination of bad boy vibes on the outside and an adorably gooey center on the inside. Given his litany of tattoos and his adrenaline-seeking personality, Quan is not the boyfriend Anna’s parents would have chosen for her. That sparks a hint of rebellion in Anna, who is growing tired of being the person her family, friends, boyfriend and the public expect her to be. 


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: How Helen Hoang wrote what she calls her hardest book yet.


Reading a Hoang romance often involves tears, given her knack for homing in on uncomfortable emotions and human vulnerability. The Heart Principle is no different, and it will offer much-needed catharsis to readers who can identify with Anna’s burnout and restlessness. And like Hoang’s previous romance novels, this is a heroine-centric story with intimate ties to the author’s own life experiences. (Don’t skip the author’s notes at the end of Hoang’s books!) Anna and Quan’s love story blossoms out of acceptance—both self-acceptance and being fully accepted by another person, even when plagued by thoughts of inadequacy.

Those who have been fans of Hoang’s contemporary romances since the beginning will be overjoyed to finally get Quan’s story. It does not disappoint. And new readers will most likely sprint to the nearest library or bookstore to get their hands on Hoang’s other two books. That’s how much The Heart Principle lives up to the hype: Hoang has once again displayed her mastery of both complicated emotions and naturalistic, earthy eroticism.

The Heart Principle is easily one of the year’s most anticipated romances, as it stars a character who’s been a fan favorite ever since Helen Hoang’s 2018 debut, The Kiss Quotient.

Helen Hoang’s debut romance, The Kiss Quotient, was released to universal acclaim in 2018. Quan Diep, a tattooed bad boy with a heart of gold, nearly stole the show, and fans clamored for him to get his very own love story. But the pressure of creating a match for Quan weighed heavily on her. We talked to Hoang about how her artistic burnout led to The Heart Principle, in which Quan meets his match in Anna Sun, a classical violinist.

Romance fans have been so excited for The Heart Principle, and now it’s finally out! How do you feel?
This was an extremely difficult book to write, and one of the reasons is how personal it was. Anna’s story was inspired by recent events in my own life. Her emotions and thoughts, especially, are things that I personally felt and thought. Now that I’m sharing my experiences with readers, one of the biggest things I’m feeling is vulnerable.

While many readers will be familiar with the first two books in the series, this may be the first Helen Hoang romance for others. What would you tell those new readers to expect from The Heart Principle?
This is not the most lighthearted book I’ve written, and I recommend picking it up when they need catharsis rather than a fun, feel-good experience. I suspect this is the kind of book that will make people cry. It’s also, in my opinion, very steamy.

"I had to fight for every word. . ."

What is your typical writing process like? Was there anything different about crafting this book in particular?
Before I was published, I used to daydream my books in their entirety before I wrote them. My stories were an escape, somewhere I could go when real life became too much. The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test were “daydream” books, and because of the way publishing works, I finished writing them both before my debut. The Heart Principle is the first book that I had to write after being published, after people had developed expectations of me, and the pressure to meet those expectations made it impossible to daydream. Honestly, the pressure, combined with life events, made me mentally ill.

Like Anna, I compulsively started this book over again and again. Nothing I wrote was good enough, and I couldn’t see where the story was going. I completely lost confidence in my ability as a writer, and I second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-guessed myself with every sentence, which led to panic attacks and burnout. Writing this book was a real journey for me. I had to fight for every word, and I had to fight for my mental health as I did so. In the end, I can’t quite say I managed to regain trust in my writing, but I do accept my writing. This is what I have to give. It’s not perfect. It’s not the best. It’s not what every single reader wants. But it gets to stand, it gets to be—just like each of us gets to be.

Quan was a fan favorite pretty much from the moment he was introduced in The Kiss Quotient. Did you expect that at all? How hard was it to write a heroine to match him?
Truthfully, I didn’t anticipate Quan would be a fan favorite, and yes, I had a hard time creating a heroine to match him. But I tried my best to give Quan someone who saw him, truly loved him and felt real at the same time.

Anna gets a boost of viral fame on YouTube but experiences some heavy burnout while trying to make lightning strike twice. Was this part of Anna’s story always present, or did it become more prominent as you were writing during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many people became burned out in work?
When I first pitched this story to my publisher, it was supposed to be a fun, gender-swapped Sabrina and had nothing to do with burnout. Clearly, things changed during the writing process. My first book, The Kiss Quotient, did far better than I imagined it would, and when I tried to reproduce the magic with The Heart Principle so I wouldn’t disappoint readers, my efforts led to burnout, which in turn inspired that aspect of the book.

The worst of my burnout happened right before the COVID-19 pandemic. Ironically, quarantining under stay-at-home orders was a relief to me. Being on the autism spectrum, social interaction is extremely stressful and demanding work for me, and I haven’t minded social distancing at all. That said, like for most people, the off-the-charts levels of anxiety and uncertainty during these times have been a challenge.

What’s been getting you through the past year? Any wonderful books that brought you comfort? A new, calming hobby?
Hands down, the books that provided the greatest escape for me over the past year are Ruby Dixon’s Ice Planet Barbarians romances. (There are 22, plus an adjacent series with another 15 books, and I read them all.) They’re as far from reality as you can get (they literally don’t take place on this planet), there are no politics or impeachments or elections, and the conflicts revolve around basic survival. The heroes are blue aliens (most of them, anyway) whose greatest goals in life are to make their human mates (they come in all body types and ethnicities and are each the most beautiful person in the world to their alien) happy.

When I was writing and struggling with frequent panic attacks, it helped to have coloring books on hand so I could calm down and reset my mind before getting back to work. I also got really into Rubik’s cubes and such. My current favorite is the Gigaminx. It’s a dodecahedron with five-layered sides. I spent hundreds of hours (not exaggerating) solving, mixing and resolving this puzzle as a form of meditation. The algorithms are ingrained in my muscle memory now.

Complex emotional arcs are always prominent in your romances. Without giving away too many details, Anna deals with a family tragedy in this book. How do you balance tough subjects (anxiety, grief, trauma) while still moving the couple toward a happily ever after?
When I write heavy topics in romance, the key for me is finding the emotional connection between those things and the conflict keeping the lovers apart. Once that’s done, the story seems to fall into place and balance itself very naturally. In The Heart Principle, for example, that emotional connection is Anna’s helpless desire for external validation.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Heart Principle.


Out of the three books in the Kiss Quotient series, which hero is your favorite—Michael, Kai or Quan?
I really can’t pick. It would be like asking me to say which of my kids I love more!

One of the things I’ve loved most about your books are your author’s notes. They’re very cathartic to read, and you really give readers a peek at your inspiration for each specific romance. How did that become a tradition for you, and do you think you’ll always write one for each book?
When we were preparing to release The Kiss Quotient, I remember thinking that I had more to share than just the story in the book, that I wanted to talk about my late autism diagnosis. It changed my life, and I hoped that by bringing attention to the underdiagnosis of autism in women, I could help lead other women like myself toward greater self-understanding and improve their quality of life. I asked my editor if I could add an author’s note to the book, and she supported the idea.

For The Bride Test and The Heart Principle, on the other hand, I didn’t originally plan to write author’s notes, but when my editor asked if there was more I wanted to say, I realized that there was. I think she could see how personal these books are to me and wanted to provide the opportunity for me to share the stories behind the stories. I’m not sure I’ll always write author’s notes like these. It’ll depend on the book. If there’s something important I left out or if I feel I can bring attention to issues close to my heart, I imagine I’ll ask readers for those extra minutes of their time before they shut the book.

 

Author photo by Eric Kieu.

Helen Hoang’s third book was the hardest to write. It also might be her best one yet.

The first adult novel from YA superstar author Julie Murphy (Dumplin’, which was adapted into the hit Netflix film) is both right on trend (Rom-coms are big, have you heard?) and timelessly appealing. If the Shoe Fits takes its cues from the iconic fairy tale Cinderella, but its buoyant humor and good-hearted outlook are all Murphy. She talked to BookPage about the liberating experience of writing grown-up characters and why her version of the wicked stepmother is more complicated than conniving.

How does it feel to have written your first adult novel? Did the writing process feel different at all?
I am so incredibly excited to be dipping my toes into the adult waters. It's something I've hoped to do for quite some time, and this seemed to be the perfect crossover project to start with. Of course If the Shoe Fits is an adult book, but I think it's a really good first step into adult romance for teenagers as well. The romance is exciting and steamy while still maintaining a lower heat level, so I've really found it to be the perfect access point for new romance readers. 

As I was drafting, I had this really great lightbulb moment. As a YA and middle grade author, I spend a lot of time on the page working with and sometimes around adult characters, but this time my main character is the adult. There's no curfew or grounding to stand in her way, but that also means the safety blanket of turning to someone older and wiser is pulled out from under her in some ways. I actually found the process to be really liberating and exciting!

This is the first installment of Meant to Be, a series of Disney princess retellings, each written by a different author. Are you able to tell us more about what’s coming up?
I can promise exciting things ahead! Each book will reimagine a different Disney princess, and while I can't tell you exactly who is writing the next book or which princess it will be, I can tell you that you will not be disappointed. The next author is one of my all-time favorites, and it's been really hard for me not to completely fangirl over this princess-author pairing.

“I never got the chance to see a chubby girl get swept off her feet by Prince Charming.”

Was Cinderella your first choice for this romance? Why did you want to revise this fairy tale? (I love the nods to the source material on the cover!)
Yes! The moment this series was pitched to me, I told my agent that I had to have Cinderella. The story of Cinderella was so iconic to me growing up.I spent so much time in a make-believe space pretending that my mom was forcing me into child labor (she wasn't, I swear!), that my older sister and cousins were my mean stepsisters and that I could talk to birds and small, adorable rodents. But the spell of my childhood imagination always broke the moment I looked in the mirror and didn't see a tall, thin blond girl staring back at me. Later on, I discovered my love for Ursula, and that really helped me reshape how I felt about myself, but she was also the villain. I never got the chance to see a chubby girl get swept off her feet by Prince Charming. Even though Cinderella wasn't the first Disney princess, she was my first Disney princess, and that's why it was so important to me that I reinvent her story with a plus-size lead for a modern audience.

Would you want to adapt another, non-princess fairy tale or Disney property in the future? If so, which one?
Are you kidding?! I would love to! This process has been such a joy from beginning to end. Though The Little Mermaid is a princess fairy tale, I would love to see a contemporary retelling from Ursula's point of view. I'm a kid of the ’90s though, so I keep finding myself thinking of Heavyweights and how amazing an updated version of that might be. I also think a modern Peter Pan set in a skate park would be so fun and—I might be going out on a limb here—but I would absolutely die for a chance to see a Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog rom-com.

A common theme in your books, including If the Shoe Fits, is plus-size main characters and body diversity. From the standpoint of a writer who's been in the industry for several years now, do you feel acceptance of larger body types and plus-size main characters has increased? Are there places where you think publishing still needs to improve?
I can definitely feel the shift, but as with all important changes, it doesn't feel like it's happening quickly enough. I think it's happening more readily in contemporary spaces, but I'm ready to see it happen in fantasy and sci-fi and all other types of genres, too. We also need to see a more diverse lineup of plus-size characters from race to sexual identity. I also just want to see more plus-size people behind the scenes as editors and designers and publicists. Lastly, I want to see space for stories with plus-size bodies that aren't issue books and that create space for body size to be a fluid part of a story and a character's identity.

Cindy becomes a last-minute contestant on the reality dating show "Before Midnight." Are you a fan of reality TV? Are there any shows or TV moments that inspired you?
I was a huge fan of “The Real World” and “Road Rules” growing up, but I was only a casual viewer of reality television dating shows. So beyond rewatching every version of Cinderella I could find to prepare for writing this book, I also had to beef up on shows like “The Bachelor.” Thankfully my editor, Jocelyn Davies, is a huge fan and was able to guide me through the many, many seasons. And now I'm a devout fan. In fact, I'm currently deeply invested in the newest season of “The Bachelorette.” (Is anyone else a little weirded out by the cat guy? And I like cats!)

Making Cindy’s stepmother, Erika, a producer on "Before Midnight" was a genius idea, given that there’s often a stereotypical, meddling executive behind the scenes in depictions of reality TV. But she's more than just a one-dimensional villain. Why did you want to complicate the figure of the wicked stepmother? At what point in the writing process did you start realizing there was more to unpack with her character?
From the beginning I knew that a really compelling way to complicate this story would be to give Cindy's stepmother some more dimension. Without even adding in the other elements of the traditional Cinderella story, the relationship between a stepchild and stepparent is already so interesting. I also really loved the idea of Cindy knowing a slightly softer side of her stepmother than the rest of the world does.

The thought of being Cindy's age, where you're technically an adult but still turning to your parents in many ways, was an added layer that I was really excited to dig into. Cindy's parents are gone. The only parental figure she has is a woman her father married a few years ago. All of those ingredients made the relationship between Cindy and Erika really thought-provoking without even having to go for the more obvious villainous tendencies.

In addition to TV production, If the Shoe Fits also explores the world of shoe design, which is Cindy's dream career. Was there any research involved in getting the details of both those industries just right?
Spending time on the set of Dumplin' really primed me for the reality TV aspect. It also gave me easy access to lots of people who could give me some great insight. I also found Amy Kaufman's book, Bachelor Nation, immensely helpful.

As far as the design aspect, it really came down to good old-fashioned research. When I graduated high school, I was actually accepted at and planning to attend the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising but had to back out at the last minute because of a family financial crisis. Even though I never did make it to design school, I had a really strong understanding of the expectations and what that sort of career path might look like. So making Cindy a shoe designer ended up a really natural fit.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of If the Shoe Fits.


Cindy’s appearance on "Before Midnight" throws her into the spotlight and makes her a body positivity icon. Do Cindy’s experiences and insecurities around becoming this de facto spokesperson of a movement mirror your own as a writer who focuses on body positivity and diversity?
There are so many incredibly talented and creative voices out there addressing body positivity and fat positivity (because they are truly two different things), but in some ways the success of Dumplin' did make me and my work some people's first interactions with the idea. That does come with a lot of pressure and responsibility, but it's also so, so important to remember that there's no one single fat experience. Every plus-size person out there sees and experiences the world through a different lens, and I think that's important for creators and public figures to remember, but also audiences. If someone learns about body and/or fat positivity through me, I hope that I'm only the first step and that they continue to learn more and experience more. I'm only one fat white lady from Texas, and I can't and will never speak for fat people as a whole. All that said, if all my work amounts to is widening a path for more plus-size creatives, then I'm happy. Lord knows someone came before me, and someone came before them.

What can we expect from you in the future?
It's been a really exciting time in my career. During the pandemic, I found myself writing even more, because it's my passion and I find it so comforting. This year, I released the third and final book in the Dumplin-verse, titled Pumpkin. I also have the second half of the Faith duology, Faith: Greater Heights, coming out in November. Next year, I'm launching a really different and exciting project, and I can't wait to talk about it. I'm literally bursting at the seams! And lastly, I'm currently working on an adaptation of my middle grade novel, Dear Sweet Pea, for the Disney Channel. I'm happy! I'm busy!

Julie Murphy dishes about the liberating experience of writing grown-up characters and why her version of the wicked stepmother is more complicated than conniving.

Julie Murphy’s first adult romance, If the Shoe Fits, is also the first book in the Meant to Be series, in which different authors will create contemporary rom-coms inspired by Disney princesses. Murphy’s reimagining of Cinderella takes place on the set of a reality TV show, where a young woman becomes an overnight body-positivity sensation.

Cindy Woods is an aspiring shoe designer who works for her TV executive stepmother, Erica. When Erica needs a last-minute stand-in for her reality dating show, “Before Midnight,” Cindy steps up, thinking she’ll be sent home early and can get right back to working on her own dreams in the fashion industry. As the only plus-size contestant, Cindy immediately captures the hearts of viewers and is seen as an inspiration by many fans of the show. While Cindy had hoped her role would be a temporary distraction, she soon becomes one of the leading competitors vying for Prince Charming’s love.

The prince is Henry Mackenzie, the heir to a formerly successful but now failing fashion company. He’s agreed to be the lead of the show as a way of revitalizing the brand. A mutual love of design sparks Henry’s and Cindy’s interest in each other, and the two fashion-loving nerds talking shop and debating various trends makes for great on-page chemistry. Henry is the perfect support for the self-assured and unabashedly passionate Cindy, and their light-on-angst courtship allows Murphy to focus on their individual character journeys.

The Cinderella story wouldn’t be the same without a stepmother and stepsisters, but Murphy thankfully elevates them into complex characters rather than irredeemable villains. Erica and her two daughters can be a bit superficial, but they’re also grieving the loss of Cindy’s beloved father, and there are sweet moments of familial love and support between all four characters. 

Fans of “The Bachelor” franchise, especially those who cast a more critical eye on the images and storylines crafted onscreen, will really enjoy this fairy-tale romantic comedy. Cindy didn’t set out to become a voice for bodies like hers, but she is cast in that role regardless. She must navigate all the typical challenges of being a reality show contestant while also having her personality flattened into “the body-positivity girl,” which has both positive and negative repercussions. 

If the Shoe Fits is a confident, modern and magical romance that starts the Meant to Be series on the right foot. 

Julie Murphy’s reimagining of Cinderella takes place on the set of a reality TV show, where a young woman becomes an overnight body-positivity sensation.

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