Elizabeth Mazer

It’s a premise fit for a holiday blockbuster: Oliver Russell is a business magnate with buckets of money, movie star charisma and every luxury a man could want—except someone to share it with. Victoria Scott is a struggling but spirited fashion designer who shows Oliver a fresh perspective, but needs his encouragement to view herself in a new light. She needs a place to demonstrate her talent, and he has a department store empire and a favor to ask: Will she fake an engagement to please his interfering mother in exchange for the showcase of her dreams? Oh, and did I mention that it’s Christmastime? And that the story unfolds in Chelsea, a particularly charming section of London? And that Victoria has a Greek chorus of quirky friends and protegees who support and encourage her along the way?

Author Georgia Toffolo mixes all of these ingredients into Meet Me in London, an airy, lace-edged creation that is just as charming as you could hope . . . and might seem, at first glance, to be just a wee bit predictable. But underneath its frills lie additional layers that explore more than you might expect. 

Oliver’s wealth and privilege don’t shield him from problems; in fact, they seem to have caused some. His family’s legacy of focusing on business at the expense of spending time with their children has left him and his parents with plenty of genuine affection for each other but no real vocabulary to connect. And they needto connect, now more than ever, because Oliver’s father is going through a health crisis that’s showing them that there might not be many chances left. It’s moving but also terribly sad that it takes cooking up a fake fiancée to finally give Oliver and his parents something to talk about. 

Meanwhile, Victoria has all the emotional intelligence and insight that Oliver and his family lack, but she gained those skills through pain and suffering. A serious accident changed her life and the lives of her closest friends forever and left Victoria unable to have children. The emotional weight of that loss has ground her down, especially when it led to a humiliating rejection by a previous boyfriend. 

These elements darken the story, but it’s to Meet Me in London’s benefit. The premise is cotton-candy fluff, but with the addition of real stakes, real pain and real issues to overcome, the plot gains substance and significance. Victoria and Oliver deserve their happy ending not because they’re gorgeous and engaging—though they both definitely are—or because their romance is sweet and satisfying. No, they deserve their happily ever after because they’ve worked toward it, growing and changing beyond the pain in their pasts to build a future together that’s full of true love and Christmas cheer.

Meet Me in London is a sweet and entertaining holiday romance with real stakes and substance under its glittery charm.

In Therese Beharrie’s And They Lived Happily Ever After, romance novelist Gaia has an unusual way of working through her stories: She personally experiences the passages she’s written in deeply vivid dreams. But when she bases a hero on her best friend’s hunky brother and he starts sharing the dreams with her, the path to romantic satisfaction gets . . . complicated. South African author Beharrie digs deeper into the multilayered magic of her latest romance.

In the early stages of writing, are you able to dive in, or do you need to plot things out first? Do you have a particular routine to help you get in the right mindset to write?
The only thing I plan before I begin a book is the emotional arcs of the characters. Once I know where my main characters are at the start and where I’d like them to be at the end, I jump right in. Each day is an adventure! As for my routine . . . does grabbing my computer whenever my kids are asleep count? Because that’s the extent of my writing routine these days. Like I said, an adventure, haha!

“The predictability writing offers is in such contrast to the unpredictability of life that I honestly find it to be a form of therapy.”

Gaia struggles with anxiety, which she deals with by focusing on her writing: a world that she can control. As a writer, what does that control mean to you? Is it empowering? Or does it feel like a responsibility, with all those characters dependent on you to get them where they need to be?
This is a great question! Since I share Gaia’s anxiety disorder, I appreciate being able to control what happens in my books. The predictability writing offers is in such contrast to the unpredictability of life that I honestly find it to be a form of therapy. Particularly writing romance, because the emphasis is on good, hopeful, wonderful things.

Gaia’s difficult early life made it hard for her to feel like she has agency as an adult. Was the impact that would have on a character something you intentionally set out to explore, or did it arise organically in the writing process? 
Oh, it was definitely intentional. I think growing up without even the illusion of choice deeply affects your ability to make choices as an adult. You might struggle to choose, or make choices without considering the consequences. For Gaia, it’s the former. She overthinks everything and punishes herself for it, and all of that contributes to her anxiety. 

The idea that heroines don’t need rescuing comes up a couple of times in this book. What they need instead is someone to support and encourage them as they work toward a solution. Is that your preferred romantic lead, less fairytale prince and more friend and ally?
Absolutely! I love the fantasy of a fairytale prince—who doesn’t?—and I think there are places in romance to explore that. But personally, I prefer the reality of a collaborative relationship. Two people making a choice to be together, to grow together and to share their lives. There’s a beauty and hope in that that I love exploring.

In the book, we visit Gaia’s favorite place, which is a bookstore. Where do you go to cheer yourself up? 
I loved going to the movies. The entire experience was such a pleasure, not in the least because it doubled as date night. But with the pandemic, we try to stay away from confined spaces like that, so it hasn’t happened in almost two years now.

Gaia deals with some public criticism for being a romance writer. How have you handled the way people sometimes disparage romance novels?
It’s frustrating, for sure, but for the most part, I ignore it. I know how much romance novels have done for me, and so many other people feel that way too. Romance gets the credit it deserves within our community. That’s good enough for me.

Read our review of ‘And They Lived Happily Ever After.’

The way we inherit things from our families, for better or for worse, is a strong theme in the story. How has your own family legacy shaped you and your choices? What legacy do you plan to pass on to your children?
Another great question! My parents have taught me the value of hard work, and I think that determination is part of what helped me to pursue writing as a career. I think that’s what I’d like my children to know, too—that hard work and passion can truly help you reach your dreams.

If you could live one of Gaia’s stories in your dreams at night, which heroine would you pick, and why?
Princess Jade. Yes, she was trapped in a castle for most of her life (oops?), but I think that’s given her the strength and resilience she’ll need to rule a kingdom. Plus, now she gets to experience the freedom she lost, getting to know herself and falling in love. Not a super bad deal! (Disclaimer: I do not endorse being trapped in a castle for any person, princess or commoner.)

Both you and Gaia have taglines of sorts for your writing that emphasize diversity. Yours is “Diverse, emotional romance” and Gaia’s is “Diverse romance with laughter and heart.” In what ways is it important to you personally to add diversity to the romance landscape?
It’s been a great pleasure to write characters and settings I didn’t see much of growing up, particularly ones that I relate to. This is why my characters are generally all South African, and my settings tend to be in or around South Africa. But the most important way I’d like to add to romance is by representing a wide range of diverse characters, so that my readers can experience more than the stereotypes they’ve been exposed to thus far.

Author photo by ForeverYours Photography.

Therese Beharrie digs deeper into her multilayered and magical new love story, which follows a romance author who is able to experience her own writing in her dreams.

Writing a novel means walking in your characters’ shoes: feeling their pain, celebrating their joys, sharing their fears and anxieties. In Therese Beharrie’s And They Lived Happily Ever After, romance novelist Gaia Anders takes this maxim to a whole new level. Every night, the pages she’s written during the day come to life in her dreams. Gaia is her heroine—speaking each line of dialogue, experiencing every encounter, even feeling every kiss. On a practical level, she uses this ability as a writing tool. There’s nothing like living out a scene’s worth of dialogue to hear if it sounds stilted or unnatural. On an emotional level, it allows her to deal with her very real loneliness and isolation in a version of the world that she can control, one where she knows exactly what everyone will say and do and no one can hurt her with an unscripted word or deed. It’s a world that lets her live both wildly and safely at once. Until everything changes.

Jacob Scott is Gaia’s best friend’s little brother. So maybe it’s not surprising that they reconnect for the first time in years at a party in Jacob’s brother’s apartment. It is a little surprising that they run into each other because they’re both hiding in the same bedroom though. Jacob doesn’t want his brother to scold him for being a workaholic. Gaia doesn’t want her friend to scold her for giving in to her pervasive social anxiety and avoiding the party. But Jacob doesn’t make her anxious. In fact, they quickly get very close to being physically intimate. An interruption derails their encounter, but it can’t wipe the desire from Gaia’s mind, so when she goes home and starts a new story, it has a very familiar-looking hero. The only problem is that when Jacob shows up in her dream that night, he doesn’t stick to the script. Gaia is still living out her writing in her dreams, but she’s not the only real person there anymore. The daytime world has intruded in the form of a man she can’t resist, and now can’t avoid.

Therese Beharrie digs deeper into the multilayered magic of her latest romance.

There’s something wondrous about stories that take the ordinary world and add in something unexplained, something marvelous or frightening or bizarre (or, best yet, all at once). Gaia’s dreams feel truly magical, but Beharrie also shows how real life moves on alongside them. Gaia’s ability is incredible, but it doesn’t solve all her problems. It makes some things easier, some things harder and a lot of things more complicated. Because no matter how well things go in her dreams, where she has all the control, in the morning she has to wake up and face real life—where interacting with strangers scares her, she has hardly anyone she’d consider a friend and she grapples every day with a former foster child’s sense that there’s nowhere she belongs and no one she can count on. It’s little wonder that she prefers her dreams.

And yet, at the end of the day, life is real and vivid and shockingly intense. The magic of the story comes from Gaia learning to choose that real, scary, vivid life over the safety of her imagination. In Beharrie’s wonderful romance, real love is even better than magic.

Real love is even better than magic in Therese Beharrie’s story of a romance novelist whose writing comes to life in her dreams.

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?

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