A cozy small town. A quaint Main Street lined with quirky family-owned shops. Community events—farmers markets, pumpkin carving contests, Christmas tree lightings—attended by everyone. A plucky, adorable heroine finds love with the gorgeous guy who drove her crazy, right up until their nonstop sparring turned into love.
We all know the formulas. Like receiving a gift-wrapped bicycle, the joy doesn’t come from wondering, “Whatever could this be?” but rather from the instant recognition that you’ve gotten exactly what you want. Sweetness? Check. Warm fuzzies? Check. Happily ever after? Checkmate.
As Seen on TV
In Meredith Schorr’s debut, As Seen on TV, Adina Gellar has let made-for-TV movies convince her that everything wrong with her big-city life could be cured by a small-town romance. Of course she hasn’t found love in superficial, fast-paced New York City. What she needs is a down-home everyman who will offer her steadiness and commitment—something she craves both personally and professionally.
In a last-ditch effort to kick-start her freelance journalism career, Adina pitches a story about Pleasant Hollow, a nearby small town about to be forever changed by the addition of a huge housing tower. She anticipates being welcomed to Pleasant Hollow by a grandmotherly bed-and-breakfast owner, befriended by a spunky waitress and charmed by a small-town Romeo, all of whom will confirm that the interlopers are ruining the character of their adorable town. Instead, the B&B owner is curt, the waitress is impatient, the town is bleak and no one cares about the development or Adina . . . except for the tower’s project manager, Finn Adams. Despite being absolutely gorgeous, city boy Finn’s lack of interest in a picture-perfect HEA is a red flag for Adina.
Nevertheless, Adina remains plucky to the max and continues trying to fit everyone else into the parts she wants them to play. The relentlessness of her search for quaintness and charm is admirable, if at times exhausting, while her struggle to find a simple, straightforward romance in a way-too-complicated world is relatable. Schorr provides an interesting foil for Adina in Finn, who encourages and frustrates her in equal measure as he helps her realize that love doesn’t have to be neat and tidy to be right and real.
★ Nora Goes Off Script
Nora Hamilton, of Annabel Monaghan’s Nora Goes Off Script, lives on the other side of a romance fixation—not as the addict but as the dealer, churning out scripts of sweet, interchangeable stories for the Romance Channel. But when her spoiled wastrel of a husband leaves her and their two kids, and she realizes she’s secretly, guiltily glad to see him go, she ends up pouring her own story into a new screenplay.
That screenplay gets turned into a serious Hollywood movie, starring Hollywood’s most gorgeous star, Leo Vance, who comes to Nora’s house to film on location and then . . . doesn’t leave. Leo has looks, talent, fame, fortune and a smolder that could melt glass. But after a recent personal loss, he’s floundering to figure out who he is, and Nora’s historic home in a low-key small town seems like the right place to find his footing. Will love ensue? Romance readers know it will, but their mutual feelings manage to catch both Nora and Leo totally off guard.
The plot—big-city hotshot finding his real self with help from a small-town sweetheart—may be a classic formula, but not a single thing in Nora Goes Off Script comes across as predictable. The characters seem to genuinely discover their story as it unfolds, always digging for something authentic and rejecting stereotypes (at least, the ones that Monaghan doesn’t gently lampoon before employing). Nora and Leo’s struggles are honest and poignant, Nora’s children are genuine and nuanced characters who are never treacly or smarter than the adults, and the romance takes its time while taking its main couple seriously. Warm, witty and wise, Nora Goes Off Script tells the truth about all of love’s ups and downs: family love, friendship love, romantic love that comes to a wrenching end—and love that triumphs so beautifully, you’ll still be smiling over it long after you’ve put the book down.
Are you a sucker for a made-for-TV movie? Then you'll love As Seen on TV and Nora Goes Off Script.
What’s worse than being stood up on Valentine’s Day? Siobhan’s morning coffee date with her standing hookup was supposed to test the waters of them becoming more than just a good time. Miranda’s fancy lunch with her new beau was supposed to reinforce the seriousness of their relationship. And Jane’s date—well, Jane’s date was with a friend who agreed to play the part of her boyfriend at a social event so her nosy co-workers would stop matchmaking. The man hurts all three women with his absence. Yes, man, singular. Because the guy who ditches them all is the same person, one Joseph Carter.
It sounds like a premise for a French farce. In fact, anyone familiar with the play Boeing-Boeing by Marc Camoletti—or the movie adaptation with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis—might think they know where the story is going. But if you’re expecting an absurdist comedy in which everything is played for laughs, you’re in for a surprise. While Beth O’Leary’s The No-Show is frequently funny and playful, it’s never silly or frothy. O’Leary digs deep into the stories of these women: They’re three-dimensional, thoughtful, challenging people dealing with real problems and real feelings that are absolutely no joking matter. They also have great friends, who are fleshed out and fantastic characters in their own right, giving the story not just a sense of place and community but a genuine feeling of warmth. Each woman gets only a third of the book to herself, but O’Leary manages to convey intimate knowledge of each woman and her loved ones . . . with one exception. Joseph remains something of a cipher. O’Leary never steps inside his head to understand what he’s thinking or feeling.
O’Leary cleverly uses literary smoke and mirrors to keep Joseph’s motivations mysterious, and to keep the reader invested regardless. But the fact that such a pivotal piece is missing for most of the novel may leave readers cold, especially those looking for a more traditional love story. Siobhan, Miranda and Jane are painted so vividly that it’s frustrating to have their mutual love interest merely sketched in. When the romances aren’t center stage, The No-Show is a terrific read, filled with people who are enjoyable company even when the story goes to dark places, including struggles with doubt and insecurity and past traumas involving sexual manipulation and a miscarriage. O’Leary is a great storyteller, with keen insight into all the phases of romance, even falling out of love.
The No-Show is sweeter and sadder and deeper and lovelier than I expected, and I enjoyed reading it. But I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I hadn’t constantly been questioning “whydunnit.”
The No-Show is a terrific read, with keen insight into all the phases of romance and three very compelling female characters.
If you’re looking for a sweet, nostalgic Regency romance—all stately ballrooms, gallant suitors and sparkling repartee over tea with tiny sandwiches—keep looking. There’s nothing prim or proper about Lex Croucher’s dazzling debut novel, Reputation, which is so boldly, audaciously modern in its portrayal of 19th-century mean-girl culture that I kept waiting for someone to inform the heroine that on Wednesdays, they wear pink.
Georgiana Ellers is eager to find a society as exciting and glamorous as her favorite books, but her expectations are low. With neither money nor connections, her social opportunities are limited to what her aunt and uncle can provide, and their idea of excitement differs dramatically from hers. She is suffering through a dreadful party with bad lighting, worse punch and dismal company when in steps Frances Campbell. From that moment, nothing is ever dull again.
Frances is so sparkling, so vibrant and lively and witty and daring, that readers will be forgiven for thinking that she’s Georgiana’s love interest. Certainly, Georgiana is instantly smitten. Croucher understands the fierce, passionate crushes girls have on their friends—the yearning to be in another person’s orbit, to have them think of you as clever and charming. Romantic attachment makes the heart beat faster, but friendships burrow deeper under the skin; you feel them all the way to your bones. And that’s ordinary friendship. Frances is anything but ordinary. In addition to the giddy pleasure of her company, she exposes Georgiana to a world of fantastic wealth, endless indulgence and absolute debauchery. It’s fun, it’s dizzying, it’s literally intoxicating—and it’s very, very dangerous.
There’s bigotry—heaps of it, ranging from racism to chauvinism to classism to homophobia. There’s relentless mockery of any easy target, even within the “in” group. There’s peer pressure, slut-shaming and marriages so toxic that you wonder how they ever managed to reproduce. There’s an intense attempted rape depicted on the page and the heartbreaking aftermath of another assault. But for all that, Reputation is far from a dark story. While the book doesn’t shy away from the messier aspects of high-society life, it’s also filled with humor and charm, often via Georgiana, who is a refreshingly funny and frank protagonist. Her relationships are deep and complex, beautifully developed and sometimes shockingly sweet. And while a large portion of the story focuses on Georgiana’s feelings for her newfound friends, Croucher also weaves in a romance that provides a lovely contrast. Where Frances and her friends are wild, Thomas Hawksley is calm. Where they are spontaneous, he is deliberate. And where they bring out the worst in Georgiana, he brings out the best.
Reputation is not always an easy read, but it’s a vivid and fascinating one. And it’s definitely not quaint.
Reputation is not always an easy read, but author Lex Croucher’s take on the Regency period is vivid, fascinating and the opposite of quaint.
As a contestant on the reality cooking competition show “Chef’s Special,” Dahlia Woodson is looking to reinvent herself and find a new path forward. London Parker, the show’s first nonbinary contestant, has figured out who they are and wants to show the world what they can do. Dahlia and London’s chemistry is dynamic, and their cooking is delicious . . . but the course of love and reality TV never runs smoothly. We asked Anita Kelly, author of Love & Other Disasters, to share the secret sauce of their storytelling.
At multiple points in the book, Dahlia focuses on the building blocks of cooking—starting with something simple. Do you have an equivalent of that for writing? When you start with the basics of a story, what does that look like for you? For me, stories always begin with characters. I usually think of one main character and a problem they’re struggling with, and then it’s like, all right, who are they going to meet who’s going to help them keep moving? Who’s going to tell them they’re OK? I can never start a story until I know my people.
Both London’s sister, Julie, and Dahlia’s brother, Hank, are fantastic characters. Was that close sibling dynamic something you wanted to explore? Do you have a sibling or friend who fits in that category? I have always been so drawn to siblings as important parts of stories. I grew up with two older siblings of my own, along with a ton of cousins who were all very close in their own sibling dynamics. I also watched how close my parents were with their siblings. So it probably has been ingrained in me from personal experience. But it’s also just this idea of someone who is literally with you your entire life (if you’re lucky), who has to love you through every single one of your embarrassing, confusing stages.
It was also important to me, since both Dahlia and London have struggles with their parents, that they still had a solid family foundation through their siblings. Someone who would still have their backs, like you said, no matter what. Someone who could remind them they were loved and had a soft place to land back home, even when their Los Angeles lives got complicated.
While filming “Chef’s Special” in LA, Dahlia spends a lot of time thinking about “LA Dahlia” and how she’s different from the person she’s been at home. Was that something you wanted to tap into, how coming to a new place and breaking out of our routines can open us up to new things? LA Dahlia was probably the most personal part of this book, when I think about it. I grew up in a small town on the East Coast, and as an angsty teen, I used to fantasize about breaking out and escaping to California, which seemed like the epitome of romance and adventure and freedom. I was that weirdo who spent a disproportionate amount of time listening to “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas instead of . . . anything else I should have been listening to as a ’90s kid. Anyway, I have been able to travel quite a bit since my teenage years and will always have wanderlust in my bones, but LA still seems particularly magical to me. I think the idea of LA Dahlia was probably me manifesting my deepest teenage desires.
LA Dahlia is, of course, the same person as Maryland Dahlia, the same person as Massachusetts Dahlia. They all matter, and they are all her. But allowing ourselves to dream big, to live out untold versions of ourselves, is something that traveling to a new place can absolutely help unlock.
Dahlia and London compare notes on their chosen comfort foods. Is your own favorite comfort food hidden in their answers? Funnily enough, not really. For London, I have to give credit to my brother-in-law, who really knows food. I am, in fact, not much of a foodie at all, and when I was just starting to draft this book, I asked him what he would consider a great meal. I can’t remember what his full answer was, but he was super enthusiastic about how much he loves just browning up a bunch of Brussels sprouts with a ton of butter, and I was like, now there’s something I would never do. But London Parker would.
For me, anything involving cheese or ice cream is my comfort spot. If it’s covered in cheese, I will eat it. And especially during the pandemic, I have gone through, like, multiple cartons of Ben & Jerry’s a week and am not ashamed. If I ever develop an intolerance to lactose, I will need a lot of emotional support.
In all seriousness, though, I think love should feel a lot like comfort food, which is probably why I put such emphasis on it in this story. A healthy relationship and our favorite foods are both deeply personal and full of reliable joy.
Often in romance novels, the sex is idealized—perfect bodies, perfect synchronicity, sweeping waves of passion with nothing messy or awkward or unsure. But in one of their very first sexual encounters, Dahlia argues for the importance of recognizing her and London’s individual imperfections. What went into making that choice? I could talk about this topic for a long time, but painting sex—and bodies—as imperfect and messy and funny is one of the most important parts of writing romance to me. Because that’s what sex is! Bodies and sex are so freaking weird! Sex can be all of those things—messy and funny and imperfect—and it can be sensual and serious and hot.
Of course, I am as much of a sucker in my own romance reading life for toned bodies, hunky muscles and magically perfect sex as anyone. And I’ve written some of that, too. Seriously, I am always down for beautiful people really knowing how to please their partners. But I think it’s not only more honest but also simply more interesting to write about the more diverse realities of bodies and sex. The more we normalize talking through sex, laughing through sex and doing whatever the hell wewant during sex (with consent), the better our relationships with our bodies, our partners and our sexualities will be. I do think there’s more imperfect sex these days in romance, along with more inclusion of characters on the asexual spectrum as well, which is great.
It was really important to me to get the sex in this book right. I wanted to have on-page sex with a nonbinary character to show that even people with complicated relationships with their bodies and identities can still have great sex, while still being respectful of London’s autonomy. I can’t profess to have gotten it perfect, and if any other nonbinary or trans folks out there have feedback about how I could do it better next time, my ears are always open.
Cooking is a lifeline for Dahlia, and it’s something she leaned into during a difficult period in her life. Does cooking have that same significance for you? For sure. I am only physically able to cook when I am doing mentally OK. Like, to have the energy and the focus to make a full-ass meal for myself? Whenever it happens (and during the pandemic, it has not been often), I know I’m doing OK. And I always feel really, really proud of myself. Even if it’s only something simple.
Dahlia needs that feeling, of feeling proud of herself, of feeling in control of something. And she can only find that, in the beginning of the book, through cooking. I am not actually a great chef, but I do deeply understand that feeling. Writing is similar; I can only do it when my brain is working right. Each meal, each page written, is an accomplishment to be proud of.
I love how Dahlia and her brother use top 10 lists to combat the sads, such as Top 10 “Lizzie McGuire” episodes and Top 10 cheeses. I’m going to boldly assume that this is a personal tradition of yours, and if so, what is the craziest top 10 list you’ve ever come up with? OK, I am sad to say top 10 lists are not a regular part of my life these days, but I am a staunch supporter of a good list, and once upon a time, I did have a journal that I dedicated solely to list-making. I lived in Boston at the time, and “Favorite Things I’ve Seen While Riding the T” was probably my favorite list in it. If you’ve ever ridden the T, you get it.
There’s a deeply personal and moving scene in which London sees messages of support and thanks on their social media accounts for the representation they offer. Does that mirror your own experience with readers’ responses to your stories? Readers have mentioned that section as being particularly moving, and when I read it now, I agree. But it’s funny because writing those messages was so hard when I first drafted this book. I was cringing the whole time I typed them out, like oh my god, this is so cheesy, help. There’s something difficult about accepting simple, genuine kindness and support. We have all been so hardened. But I’m glad I forced myself to write them. Because you can find simple, genuine kindness and support, even on the internet. You just have to force yourself past all the trash fires to let yourself accept it.
I’m no London Parker—I would never survive on reality television—but I have been incredibly humbled and moved by the response to this book. People have mentioned it being the first book they read with a nonbinary character, and I actually love when people mention that it took them a while to get used to reading they/them pronouns for London, but that by the end, they got the hang of it. Because for a lot of people, that’s an honest experience! And the only way to normalize something is to have access to it. I am by no means the first romance author to write a nonbinary character, but it still feels like a privilege to be able to provide that first experience on the page for some people, to show the importance of getting even more gender-diverse stories out there.
Something else I’ve heard that’s made me think a lot is gratitude from people who might be cisgender but are in relationships with nonbinary or trans or gender-nonconforming people. That it’s comforting to see a relationship similar to their own in a romance, to see both themselves and the people they love depicted on the page. Whoever you are, it means something to actually see your own experiences, or even something close to them, in the medium that you love.
I also love, of course, when Dahlia’s storyline hits with people—that desire to want something different and meaningful for yourself but not knowing quite how to find it—because I think that’s a part of so many of us. Overall, I was so anxious to put this book out there—you often only imagine the very worst criticisms that you know you could receive—and the response so far has meant more than I could ever possibly express.
Author photo by Anita Kelly.
Anita Kelly, author of Love & Other Disasters, shares the secret sauce of their storytelling.
A lot of people think writing a romance novel is easy. A pair of attractive, charismatic characters meet, they have reasons why they can’t fall in love, they fall in love anyway, troubles intrude and then all the loose strings are tied together in a happily ever after. Easy, right? But knowing all the ingredients is no guarantee of producing a perfect dish. The secret is in the sauce, as every chef knows. What’s the secret sauce for writing a perfectly delicious romance novel? I have no idea, but I do know that Love & Other Disasters, Anita Kelly’s culinary whirl of a love story, has got it.
We begin with Dahlia Woodson, a rebel in desperate need of a cause who has grabbed onto cooking with both hands. After years of drifting along without a clear direction, while also being stuck in a souring marriage that eventually ended in a painful divorce, she found solace in creating perfectly flavored soups and delicately crafted pasta. And then the lifeline of cooking led her in a new direction: all the way to Los Angeles as one of 13 contestants on “Chef’s Special,”a cooking competition show.
Also in the lineup is London Parker, the show’s first nonbinary contestant. Where Dahlia is seeking purpose, London is focused and direct. Where Dahlia is spontaneous, London is structured. Where Dahlia is beautifully chaotic, London is intricately precise. And where Dahlia is lonely . . . London is lonely, too. Like salty and sweet, they’re two great tastes that bring out the best in each other. In London, Dahlia has someone she can trust, someone who cherishes her in a way that no one ever has. And in Dahlia, London finds someone who opens up their world. Coming out has not been easy for London—and that’s before going on television for the world to see. Dahlia’s open acceptance and affection help them settle into truly accepting themself in every way.
Love & Other Disasters is a delicious confection of a story: savory, succulent and also a bit salty in spots, thanks to certain difficult personalities that come into play. The characters, from our protagonists to the other contestants to the crew on the show, feel vibrant and real in their virtues and most especially their flaws. But while the plot is rich and surprising, the central romance is sweet, right from the start. London and Dahlia discover love together in a way that is charming and genuinely moving. It’s easy not only to fall in love with them as they fall for each other but also to root for them all the way to their sumptuous happy ending. The only bad thing about this book is that even after you’ve gorged on the whole thing, it’ll leave you wanting more.
The only bad thing about Love & Other Disasters is that even after you’ve gorged on the whole thing, it’ll leave you wanting more.
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.
Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.