Elizabeth Mazer

Fans of Sally MacKenzie’s Widow’s Brew series have been waiting for this moment. Jo, the widowed Lady Havenridge, has appeared in the series' previous two books as a woman who seemed to have it all figured out. The founder and leader of the Benevolent Home for the Maintenance and Support of Spinsters, Widows, and Abandoned Women and their Unfortunate Children, she has established not only a sanctuary for women and girls with nowhere else to go, but also a thriving business as the women operate their own brewery. She has work, purpose, a home and a community, but now it’s finally time for her to find love. And perhaps it’s a testament to how rare and special her situation is that love and matrimony—the longed-for prize of every young miss in Regency society—holds little appeal for her. She doesn’t actually say that she needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, but the implication is there.

However, in Cheers to the Duke, the right man is quite forcefully ushered in. Edward, the Duke of Grainger, is a solicitor from an obscure branch of the family tree who unexpectedly inherited the title (think Matthew Crawley from "Downton Abbey"). The search for a bride, someone to step into the shoes of his dearly loved first wife as Edward’s partner and mother to his young, sensitive son, has not gone well. Thrust into society’s so-called graces, he is fawned over by empty-headed debutantes with hungry eyes on his title even as they turn up their noses at his common origins. But then he’s brought together with Jo at the christening of Viscount Hurley, their mutual godchild. And by “brought together,” I mean “all but locked into a closet together by their friends who’ve decided they’re perfect for each other.” Edward is quick to agree that Jo is just what he needs—in his home, his heart and his bed. (His son, Thomas, is instantly on board as well, and in one of the sweeter moments in the story, actually proposes that Jo become his mother even before Jo and Edward officially meet.) Jo, on the other hand, is harder to convince.

In a genre as well-trod as Regency romance, there's much pleasure to be found in stories that subvert expectations, and this story (this series!) definitely accomplishes that. Rather than a society-defying rake who is tamed by love, MacKenzie features capable heroines who defy social norms and require heavy persuasion before they’ll give in to the virtues of wedded life and love. There’s no villain in the story, no rigidly disapproving family member interfering with the course of true love, no moustache-twirling scoundrel attempting to compromise or disgrace the heroine. The only roughness in the course of true love comes from the fact that Jo genuinely needs convincing that marriage is something she’d ever want, even with the perfect man. Her independence is both admirable and refreshing. The response of the other characters to that independence is . . . a bit less endearing. Like Bridget Jones, I’m not often a fan of “smug marrieds” who are convinced that no one can be both happy and single, and the other guests at the christening celebration lean a little far into that mindset. There could have been a bit less well-intentioned matchmaking, and a bit more genuine respect for Jo’s choices (there were a few too many conversations where she got steamrolled).

Still, the energy of the story is infectious, evoking the feeling of a family reunion where everyone’s truly glad to see one another. For those hoping for a happy conclusion to these characters and their adventures in brewing, the final Widow's Brew novel delivers love, laughter and libations.

Fans of Sally MacKenzie’s The Widow’s Brew series have been waiting for Jo, Lady Havenridge, to get her happily ever after, and Cheers to the Duke does not disappoint.

These witchy rom-coms are whimsical and hilarious—with just a touch of wickedness.

Witch Please

In Witch Please by Ann Aguirre, Danica Waterhouse knows the rules: Mundanes are off-limits. She interacts with them as needed to keep her electronic repair business running, but they can never know the truth about her power, and they can never be considered romantically. The family curse says falling for a mundane will drain a Waterhouse witch’s magic away. Magic binds Danica to her work, her family, her coven—everything that matters. So when she meets the most incredible man, and feels the most incredible draw to him, she makes an incredible effort to keep her distance . . . and fails. Because Titus Winnaker is amazing: handsome, funny, goofy and smitten with Danica from the start. And he bakes. And he’s a volunteer firefighter. And he’s absolutely forbidden.

Smart, strong, determined and compassionate, Danica knows how to fix everything except her own heart, and her turmoil is palpable on the page. Endearing, clueless Titus is a beautiful cinnamon roll, too sweet for this world. The most magical moments they share don’t involve any witchcraft at all but instead feature two people simply being good to each other, in every imaginable way. Aguirre has concocted an exciting, engaging whirl of a story.

The Ex Hex

Vivienne Jones—spurred on by her broken heart, her loyal, vengeful cousin and way too much vodka—curses her no-good, horrible ex to have bad hair, bad sex and bad luck forever and ever, amen. However, when Rhys Penhallow returns to the small town of Graves Glen, Georgia, nine years later, his hair is still perfect and his sex appeal is still intact. So Vivi concludes, with a little sadness and a little relief, that her momentary whim of a curse didn’t take. But then a series of mishaps proves that bad luck has infected the town, potentially leading to disaster if the situation isn’t solved by Samhain, which is fast approaching.

While The Ex Hex is pure rom-com with its fun tone and witty characters, author Erin Sterling takes things deeper with potent, beautifully portrayed symbolism, especially when it comes to tarot cards and the intriguing, melancholy mystery tangled up with the curse. It’s a romance magically enhanced to be more vivid, more daring and more potentially deadly, and it’s all the more satisfying for it.

Payback’s a Witch

In Lana Harper’s Payback’s a Witch, there’s not just one witch scorned. There are three. Emmy Harlow left town as a brokenhearted teen after being used and discarded by Gareth Blackmoore, scion of the richest, most influential family in Thistle Grove. The four witch families that founded the town still run things, but the lion’s share of power and influence goes to whichever family wins the “Gauntlet,” a semicentennial event that the Blackmoores have won pretty much every time. The Thorns and the Avramovs have always lagged behind, and the Harlows have never stood a chance—which is why Emmy got the whole “It’s not you, it’s how utterly insignificant your family is” brush-off from Gareth years ago. But now she’s back, and she learns that Gareth has since toyed with Emmy’s longtime bestie, Linden Thorn, and also with Emmy’s secret high school crush, the stunning, untouchable Talia Avramov. And thus an alliance is formed as the three women come together with the goal of toppling the ascendency of the Blackmoores and putting Gareth firmly in his place.

Harper’s adult debut is gorgeous in every way. It’s hilariously funny, deeply moving, powerfully uplifting and so glue-you-to-the-page engrossing that this reviewer literally did not put it down for the final hundred pages. The love story between Talia and Emmy develops beautifully, but the true romance is with the town and the community. The bonds of both family and friendship shine from start to finish, and Harper balances the different clans and captures how, together, they make Thistle Grove the magical place that it is.

These witchy rom-coms are whimsical and hilarious—with just a touch of wickedness.

A Regency romance without a scandal is, of course, hardly any kind of romance at all. What’s the fun of having all those rules if no one breaks them? But while we’ve all relished our share of rakish heroes with scandalous pasts and sinister reputations, there’s something bold and delightful about this trio of romances featuring convention-defying women. These heroines seem, at least on paper, to be the very last sort that any Regency hero would marry.

Charlotte Hurst, the heroine of Not the Kind of Earl You Marry by Kate Pembrooke, is most definitely an unexpected match for William Atherton, Earl of Norwood—especially given that their engagement is announced in the newspaper before the two of them have even met. It’s part of a plot to embarrass William and damage his political ambitions, but Charlotte and William choose to combat it by keeping the ruse going and playing the happy couple. Or at least, that’s William’s hope. Because he initially accuses Charlotte of being the source of the story, she takes some convincing. That’s his first hint that she's not like the other women he’s known. Far from fawning over the rich, handsome and titled gentleman, she’s quick to tell William off, informing him that he’s not the last man she’d ever marry, because that doesn’t go far enough. She’d never marry him, even if there were literally no options left.

Pembrooke uses the pair's first meeting to set the stage for the relationship they’ll build, in which Charlotte continues to startle and engage William by defying his expectations and puncturing his ego in the process. Charlotte’s pragmatic, no-nonsense attitude is refreshing not just to William but also to readers, who will appreciate her honesty, her kindness and the warmth and sincerity of her growing love for the one man she was quite certain she’d never marry.

In contrast to Charlotte, Kathleen Calvert knows exactly how she consistently ends up the subject of gossip in Vanessa Kelly’s The Highlander’s Irish Bride. She keeps finding herself in absurdly inappropriate situations through (mostly) no fault of her own. When the latest scandal gets her banished from London and sent to visit a cousin who has married into a Scottish clan, she immediately clashes with Grant Kendrick, the most staid and serious member of the somewhat riotous family. He’s Scottish while she’s Irish. He’s quiet while she’s talkative. He’s proper and buttoned up while she’s . . . not. Kathleen’s immediate reaction is that they could never suit, which any romance reader knows means that they’ll eventually discover they’re perfect for each other. Which they are, of course. Kathleen’s exuberance brings much-needed color into Grant’s rather drab life, while his steadiness eases her restless energy and helps her find a place to belong at last.

There’s a lovely poignancy to the scenes where the couple bonds over the things they do share: love of family, devotion to siblings, deep-seated sadness over the loss of parents. Grant and Kathleen are surrounded by quite a bit of drama and chaos as their romance progresses (people are held at gunpoint multiple times, and there’s a love triangle that gets delightfully convoluted) but Kelly uses their growing love as an anchor, grounding all the excitement in something real and warm and lovely.

Hanna Zaydan, Diana Quincy’s heroine in The Viscount Made Me Do It, is the most scandalous of this trio, but she is also the most heroic. She’s a bone setter, a historical occupation that was a bit like a chiropractor, but without a formal education and without a fraction of respect from the established medical community. As such, Hanna is viewed as a charlatan at best and a prostitute at worst, and even her own Arab English family finds her choice of profession inappropriate. The only person who believed in her was her father, who trained her in the craft and whose practice she has taken over following his death. Thomas Ellis, Viscount Griffin, comes into her life as he searches for his parents’ killer, and Hanna earns his admiration and respect when she cures him of a long-standing injury that the medical establishment has been unable to treat. His admiration grows into a fascination that soon tips over into love. It would not only be shocking for a viscount to wed a working-class woman in a disreputable profession, but Hanna’s big, close-knit family would never view Thomas as an acceptable match, since he's not an Arab.

In a subgenre as WASPy as Regency romance, The Viscount Made Me Do It is a marvelous breath of fresh air, reminding readers that there were other cultures, other religions and other perspectives present in this era besides the ones most commonly focused on. Hanna is a fascinating creation for all the ways in which she defies convention—and her love story is all the more dazzling for the richness and vibrancy her perspective brings.

A Regency romance without a scandal is, of course, hardly any kind of romance at all. What’s the fun of having all those rules if no one breaks them?

The Princess Stakes contains several great love stories, and the book opens as one of them ends. We only get glimpses of a romance for the ages between a regal Indian maharaja and the English noblewoman who left everything behind to have a life by his side. We know they lived happily for a little while, but the happiness didn’t last. By the time we encounter the Maharaja of Joor, his beloved wife is dead, his authority has been drained away by the British and his precious daughter, Princess Sarani, has been forced into an engagement with the odious Lord Talbot. When the maharaja is betrayed and assassinated, Sarani must flee for her life.

And here’s where the book's grandest—and stormiest—love story starts, as Sarani’s desperate search for passage to her English family’s protection lands her on Rhystan Huntley’s ship. Rhystan, the Duke of Embry, despises Sarani for her duty-driven rejection of their love years earlier. Will sparks fly as the pair reunites? They will. Will the journey to England be fraught with tension, bickering and unrelenting desire? It will. And will Sarani's arrival in England create a tremendous splash when Rhystan—in a temporary deal that is intended to benefit them both—makes it known that they are engaged? Oh, it most definitely will.

There’s drama aplenty to be found in this romance, from disguised princesses to swashbuckling sailors to a highly publicized betting spree over which debutante will snag the handsome, eminently eligible Duke of Embry. Tempers run high, passions run hot and a mixture of greed, jealousy, prejudice and lust leads to more than one violent altercation from which Sarani and Rhystan must escape. The ton's small-mindedness and caustic disdain might make you wish that our hero and heroine would resort to violence themselves a little more often. (Trust me, some of those society folks have it coming.) But Sarani and Rhystan’s devotion to each other and to those dearest to them shines bright and fierce in contrast to the cowardly pettiness of those who try to undermine them. That love unites them against their foes and gives them the courage to push past their own fears and insecurities and embrace their happiness together.

Author Amalie Howard doesn’t shy away from showing the struggles a biracial character like Sarani would face, both in England and in India. Caught between two worlds, she’s viewed as not belonging enough to either to win true acceptance, but she finally finds the home she’s been searching for in Rhystan’s arms. Ultimately The Princess Stakes celebrates the power of love to win out again and again over hate: love for the person you trust to have your back; love for the family you are proud to claim; and love for yourself, exactly as you are.

This dramatic romance between an Indian princess and an English lord is a celebration of love’s victory over hate.

There’s a special allure to a soldier in historical high society, almost as if he’s a magic trick. This singular creature has the strength and ferocity of a warrior simmering beneath the veneer of a gentleman. He knows how to behave, but he might choose, at any moment, to rebel. It’s no wonder that he makes for an exciting, unconventional hero in the restrictive worlds of Georgian and Regency Britain—and no surprise that he finds love with the most interesting and unconventional of heroines.

In A Scot to the Heart by Caroline Linden, our soldier hero is Andrew St. James, a Scotsman who joined His Majesty’s army to support his mother and sisters after his father made a mess of the family finances. To everyone’s surprise, Andrew learns that he is next in line to become the Duke of Carlyle. Which means, as the dowager duchess informs him, he needs to straighten up, learn estate management, do absolutely nothing to bring shame to the family—and find a suitable wife immediately

But suitability is the last thing on Drew’s mind when he returns home to Edinburgh and meets Ilsa Ramsay, the notorious “wild widow” who plays golf, keeps a pet pony that she treats like a child and paints her drawing room to look like an open field. After a loving but stiflingly overprotected childhood and a frustrating marriage to a neglectful husband, Ilsa relishes her freedom and couldn’t bear to tuck her selfhood away into the role of a duchess. And yet, the thought of letting Drew becomes unbearable.

Ilsa is a vivacious, engaging heroine. Those familiar with the Georgian period know how easily a woman like Ilsa could end up committed to an asylum against her will, or shunned and disgraced, simply because she wants to color outside of society’s restrictive lines. Her driving desire to throw open life’s windows and let the world in shows the kind of spirit that should be admired instead of stifled, but it’s exactly this spirit that makes her think she could never be the wife that Drew needs. 

Drew, to his credit, doesn’t take too long to let her know he disagrees. Even when scandal makes her a more inappropriate choice by the minute, he stays by her side to prove that he loves her for who she is, not for who others wish her to be. The way the scandal itself plays out is a bit of a sore spot—the true villain is never really held accountable—but one can forgive A Scot to the Heart for failing to satisfy readers’ vengeful sides when the romance wraps up so very sweetly.

Sweetly satisfying could also apply to the romance in Mary Balogh’s Someone to Cherish, the eighth installment of her Westcott series. It’s been a year of lonely widowhood for Lydia Tavernor after the tragic death of her handsome, charming and wildly charismatic vicar husband. Lydia harbors harmless fantasies, idly imagining what it would be like to take a lover. But things don’t stay idle when she accidentally lets slip a reference to those fantasies to the man who is their perennial star: Major Harry Westcott. No fantasy can compare to the flesh-and-blood passion of the man himself when he enters her life—and her bed—just as no fury can compare to the community’s outrage that Lydia would betray her “saintly” husband’s memory.

Here again is a story that easily could have been tragic, with another heroine who was lovingly smothered by her family and then overshadowed and ignored as a wife before embracing her widowed independence. But where Ilsa settles for private eccentricities, Lydia shows her strength and truly remarkable courage by stepping forward into society, directly challenging everyone’s view of her. When Lydia attends a public gathering dressed in pink, not black or gray or lavender as everyone would expect, it feels as shockingly brave as Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman striding undaunted across No Man’s Land. 

One of the loveliest things about this romance is how, as Lydia comes into her own, the reader gets to watch Harry’s view of her shift accordingly. In the beginning, he really does dismiss her, as everyone has before. She’s not an instantly captivating beauty who dazzles every room she enters. Instead, she has a quieter loveliness that grows as Harry gains a better understanding of her and as she comes to a better understanding of herself. It’s that loveliness, inside and out, that surprises Harry, moves him, wins his heart in spite of himself and rallies his entire, hilarious family to support and encourage their match. (The Westcott family, by the way, is out in full force in this book. At this point in the series, it would require several pages to explain how everyone is linked, a fact that Balogh playfully lampshades when Harry teasingly threatens Lydia with a written test.) Harry works to win Lydia’s heart, but most of all, he fights to earn her trust—to prove that he loves her as she is and does not seek to change or control her. That’s what makes him worthy of her love in return.

In the end, these soldiers aren’t heroes because of their prowess on the battlefield, but because of how they fight for freedom for themselves and the women they love.

Upstanding soldiers get swept away by unconventional, openhearted women in two historical romances.

The story starts with a tragedy. A ship sailing from Jamaica sinks just before it reaches England’s shore, leaving only two survivors. The first is a badly injured woman. The other is a baby girl, who is quickly deposited into the arms of Daniel Thackery, Earl of Ashbrook. He had come to the port to meet Phoebe Dunn, his bride-to-be. A baby wasn’t in his plans—but as the baby is a blackamoor (the Regency-era term for people with dark skin) like him, the sailors assume the child must be his. If he doesn’t claim the girl, who he can only assume was Phoebe’s daughter, she’ll be sent to an orphanage, or worse. Daniel is not one to leave an innocent without protection, so he adopts the baby and names her Hope.

Meanwhile, the other survivor, identified as Jemima St. Maur, can’t remember anything about her life before the shipwreck. Her only certainty, which comes from a place deeper than memory, is that her baby was taken from her. She’s filled with fear and despair, which only worsen when she’s committed to Bedlam—but, of course, she’s not in Bedlam for long. When Vanessa Riley’s An Earl, the Girl, and a Toddler picks back up two years later, Jemima has become the toast of society. She has her pick of suitors, even if the only one who catches her eye is the barrister who secured her release and restored her to the ton—none other than Daniel himself.

It sounds like a setup straight out of a Hollywood movie, as Daniel rescues Hope, then Jemima, with the tantalizing possibility that the three of them are meant to be a family. While there’s a lot of humor and playfulness (Jemima’s letters to Daniel are highly entertaining), Riley doesn’t pull her emotional punches. An Earl opens on a powerful note, with Daniel waiting in line at the dock, seeing each person ahead of him grapple with the sight of the name of a loved one on the casualty list. When the narrative shifts to Jemima, alone and afraid in the hospital, the stakes only grow more intense.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Vanessa Riley explores the many layers of a Black aristocrat's experience in the Regency.

As the romance between Jemima and Daniel progresses, the heaviest weight comes from their vulnerabilities. Though Daniel is wealthy, educated, clever, kind and truly gentlemanly, he lives with the constant knowledge that as a Black man, any toe out of line could result in all his status and privilege being stripped away. Riley dispels the myth of the all-white Regency—people of color rose to the titled elite in this and in many other historical periods—while also refusing to diminish or gloss over an iota of the bigotry and judgment a blackamoor earl would face.

Jemima’s horrible experiences in Bedlam hang over her, shadowing not just how others perceive her but how she perceives herself and the security of her position. She was committed by an associate of her family, less because of her amnesia and more because it was convenient for her to be out of the way. With a clear and all-too-personal understanding of how easy it is for a woman to be committed to an asylum, she carries a fearful certainty that what happened before could happen again.

It’s no wonder that trust is a major theme of this romance. It’s not an easy thing for Daniel or Jemima to offer, not with so many people lined up to judge them. Their hesitance to trust each other can get a bit frustrating at times, but Riley makes it clear that they have good reason for their reservations. Love wins out over fear in the sweet ending—and the truth of what happened the day the ship sank, even when it’s not quite what anyone expected, sets them both free.

The story starts with a tragedy. A ship sailing from Jamaica sinks just before it reaches England’s shore, leaving only two survivors.

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