Elizabeth Mazer

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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.
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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.

“I think love should feel a lot like comfort food.”

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.

“Sex can be all of those things—messy and funny and imperfect—and it can be sensual and serious and hot.”

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.

Read our starred review of ‘Love & Other Disasters‘ by Anita Kelly.

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.
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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.

Anita Kelly shares the secret sauce of their storytelling.

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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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There’s nothing quite like a cowboy—all strength and competence, dedication and honor wrapped up a long, lean package and topped with a Stetson. These two new stories feature cowboy heroes who check every box, then throw in something a little extra.

Lori Wilde’s How the Cowboy Was Won returns to her well-loved town of Cupid, Texas, where Ranger Lockhart, a cowboy of good fortune, is very obviously in need of a wife. At least, this much is obvious to his lifelong best friend, the delightful and spirited Ember Alzate, who takes pride in her reputation as a local matchmaker. When Ranger comes home to chase a job opportunity, Ember’s resolved to do whatever it takes to make sure he stays in Cupid for good. If that means finding him the perfect wife, then Ember’s up to the task. Little does she know that Ranger has already decided exactly who he wants by his side, and he’ll do whatever it takes to convince his stubborn best friend that she’s the only woman who belongs in his arms.

If you think this premise sounds Austen-esque, you’re right—it’s a Western homage to Jane Austen’s Emma. Wilde turns that mannered Regency romance into a story bursting with energy and vitality that loses none of the charm of the original. Ember and Ranger are bolder, sexier and worldlier than Emma and Mr. Knightly, with Ember especially having experienced more love, loss and failure than Austen’s sheltered heroine, which adds to the richness of the story. Ember and Ranger are flawed, awkward and thoroughly engaging characters on a hilarious journey to their happily ever after. How the Cowboy Was Won is as light and effervescent as a glass of champagne, sweet and sparkling with humor and warmth.

By contrast, Hero’s Return by B.J. Daniels is a tumbler of scotch—layered, smoky and complex. Tucker Cahill fled his Montana home 19 years ago with no explanation to his friends and family. After hearing the news that an unidentified woman’s body has been found, Tucker decides to finally return to the town and face his past. The secret of Tucker's connection to the crime scene is a twisted web that only gets more tangled as the story progresses. He teams up with Kate Rothschild, a well-bred beauty who fought against her family’s expectations to come to the same small town and get closure on her own personal tragedy.

Despite the darkness of the premise, Tucker is every bit the hero that the title promises—principled and honorable, with a determination to find answers that’s balanced by empathy and compassion. The bullheaded Kate, who takes no prisoners in her fierce drive to get to the truth, brings out his protective side. Their deepening connection and slow slide into love play out beautifully against the twisted backdrop of an investigation that reveals new, deadly angles at every turn. Hero’s Return is a page-turner that will have you fighting the urge to flip ahead and see how it all ends. And while the conclusion is very satisfying, it also carries hints that will leave you waiting eagerly for Daniels’ upcoming return to the Cahill Ranch for this family’s next adventure.

There’s nothing quite like a cowboy—all strength and competence, dedication and honor—wrapped up a long, lean package and topped with a Stetson. These two new stories feature cowboy heroes who check every box, then throw in something a little extra.

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Old-school romance novels can feel like the ultimate guilty pleasure. Where else can we have the fun of being ravaged by a sexy Scotsman or having a notorious pirate take us to bed (or in a carriage, or on horseback or up against a wall . . .)? But so many of the old classics mix erotic delights with the more unsettling elements of racism, sexism and a disturbing tendency to believe that if the scene is steamy enough, the reader won’t mind that the heroine said no and the hero treated it like a yes.

The remedy is found in delicious historical romances such as these three novels. They deliver on all the elements you’d expect: The historical settings are rich and engaging, the drama is fast-paced and exciting, the passion is turbulent and scorchingly hot and the men are strong and sexy (and Scottish, in two out of three—always a nice bonus). But above and beyond that, the heroines are fierce, forthright forces to be reckoned with as they defy conventions and choose their own paths to happiness.

Athena Trappes, the lovely heroine of Between a Highlander and a Hard Place by Mary Wine, starts worlds away from rugged Scottish laird Symon Grant. We first meet her happily settled in Elizabethan England, on the verge of marriage to a handsome, charming royal courtier. She seems perfectly poised to live very properly ever after. But when her groom-to-be turns villainous and attempts to force Athena into becoming his mistress rather than his bride, her true strength is revealed. Far from swooning into the man’s arms or waiting to be rescued, she sets his house on fire and walks out with her head held high—right up until she’s forced to run for her life to avoid retribution. In a plot that might appeal to a certain bard of that period, Athena safeguards her passage by disguising herself as a boy. And this successfully protects her, until her true nature is discovered by Symon.

He’s the polar opposite of the man she’d once planned to marry—Scottish rather than British; rough-edged rather than manicured; plainspoken rather than full of empty compliments. But most of all, he’s honorable and generous rather than deceitful and cruel. He falls for Athena in an instant, but he challenges her to make her own decisions, to embrace her passion, and to choose a life with him. It’s not an easy journey for Athena, and more than once she finds herself held against her will and viewed as a commodity by ruthless men, yet through it all, she maintains her spirit and strength, and even finds the courage to love the gorgeous highlander who offers her his home and his heart.

A loving home is exactly what the orphaned heroine lacks in Julia London’s Seduced by a Scot. Taken in—with reluctance—by a friend of her father’s in 18th-century Scotland, Maura Darby is treated with cold indifference when she’s a child. But that’s far better than the outright contempt she receives as she grows into a beautiful woman and attracts too much male attention away from Sorcha, the daughter of the house. When Sorcha’s betrothed forces a kiss on Maura—a kiss for which Maura is blamed, of course—both Sorcha and her mother insist Maura must leave, at once. But where exactly is a woman with no resources meant to go? And how can the family that raised her be rid of her without generating speculation? Clearly, the only solution is to call in Nichol Bain, the capable and clever “fixer” for the upper class. At the start, he’s so confident in his abilities that he’s actually disappointed to be given such an “easy” problem. Foolish, foolish man—he has no idea what he’s in for with Maura!

It doesn’t take long before he realizes that this is not a woman who will submit to having her life arranged without having her say—at full volume. Half of the fun of the story is seeing how thoroughly Maura ruffles Nichol, shaking him out of his comfort zone and pushing him to live his life to the upmost as she strives to do the same. This is a man who believes he has all the answers, but it isn’t until Maura enters his life that he starts asking the right questions—such as what a person might be willing to sacrifice for a true and lasting love.

Compared to these other adventures, the setting of Barbarous might seem almost staid by contrast. Our Regency-era heroine—Daphne Redvers, widow to the Earl of Davenport—is a bookish, bespectacled matron living quietly with her children on her late husband’s country estate. But she shows her grit right from the start when she breaks a man’s nose on the first page! The man in question—her evil cousin, Malcolm—spends most of the book stubbornly insisting he can overpower and intimidate her while she spends the book proving him wrong, with the assistance, of course, of the exceptionally dashing hero. Hugh Redvers is, technically, Daphne’s nephew-in-law—officially titled Baron Ramsay and standing next in line to become earl before Daphne’s sons were born. He’s also a pirate, both feared and revered on the high seas as One-Eyed Standish. (Yes, he has an eye patch. And a parrot. And a monkey.) He left his aristocratic family behind decades earlier, content to let them think he was dead while he pursued his own adventures, but when he receives word that Daphne might be in danger, he comes home to help—and is stunned to find himself in danger of losing his heart for the first time.

As with Dangerous, the first title in Minerva Spencer’s Outcasts series, the story brims with all the swashbuckling excitement anyone could ask for, mixed with high-society hijinks all wrapped around a blazingly hot love story. But this book also has the most poignant departure from the old romance model. Daphne is a mother to twin boys who are the result of sexual assault—something she grapples with over the course of the story. Healing comes with time, and with the shock of finding true understanding from Hugh who, following a capture at sea, spent time as a sultan’s slave. When he comforts her, he does it as someone with intimate knowledge of how it feels to be stripped of bodily autonomy; to be used with no concern for consent. It makes their conscious choice to be together—to share themselves and enjoy each other freely—all the sweeter.

Old-school romance novels can feel like the ultimate guilty pleasure. Where else can we have the fun of being ravaged by a sexy Scotsman or having a notorious pirate take us to bed (or in a carriage, or on horseback or up against a wall . . .)?

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Tired of holly and mistletoe? Sick of eggnog? Ready to punch the next person who gets “Santa Baby” stuck in your head? Have no fear, these lovely stories are here for your fix of red-hot contemporary romance to warm you head to toe this December—without Christmas playing into the plots at all. These stories don’t feature nativity scenes, Christmas trees or twinkling lights, but each one delivers a strong dose of family love, a hefty helping of communities coming together and a generous display of hearts opening to the idea of real and lasting love.

Bryson Wells, the hero of Elle Wright’s Pleasured by You, may joke that his hometown of Wellspring, Michigan, is an African-American version of the quaint, folksy setting of “The Andy Griffith Show,” but his childhood there was certainly no sitcom. Raised by an abusive father, he fled as soon as he could, cutting all ties and vowing to never return. And yet when the fates conspire to bring him home—and the terms of a will require him to stay there for a year—he learns that the only way to overcome his past is to build a better future for himself, for the girl-next-door he’s always secretly loved and for the child they discover they’re having together.

Pleasured by You is loaded with familiar romance tropes: a black-sheep homecoming, a reunion romance with an old crush, a steamy one-night stand leading to a surprise baby. What sets Wright’s novel apart is the strong sense of connection and community underscoring it all. Balancing the hero’s and heroine’s childhood scars—Bryson from his cruel, manipulative father and the heroine, Jordan Clark, from the abandonment of her mother—are their sweet, positive relationships with others. Bryson draws strength and encouragement from his loving relationship with his siblings. Jordan’s devotion to her grandparents proves her capacity for support and commitment despite her self-doubts. And both have friends they can rely on for anything and everything: a shoulder to cry on, a reality check, a wise word of advice, even emergency hair care. As perfectly as Jordan and Bryson fit together, there’s still a sense that the weight of maintaining their happily ever after doesn’t rest solely on their shoulders. They have a wonderful support network to help guide them through whatever obstacles the future brings.

Family and community support are abundant throughout the Latinx neighborhood of Their Perfect Melody, even if the heroine, victim’s advocate Lilí Fernandez, spends most of her time desperately trying to hide her activities from her loving-but-overbearing older sisters. Lilí leads from her heart, whether she’s cheering for her beloved Chicago Cubs, leading a self-defense class for teenage girls at the local community center or all but tackling police officer Diego Reyes to the ground when he stands in between her and a battered woman who needs Lilí’s help. She doesn’t hesitate to put herself at risk if it gives her the chance to help others, to the eternal frustration of her family and Diego. But even as they scold her (which they all do—a lot), there’s also a certain baffled admiration for the way she gives of herself so freely and believes so fervently that she can make the world a better, safer, more compassionate place.

Diego, by contrast, is more closed off, more skeptical. A bad history with an older sister who has been in and out of trouble for years has soured his optimism and given him a colder view of the world. He’s still dedicated to helping—some of the sweetest scenes occur at the community center where Diego and Lilí both volunteer, serving as chaperones, instructors, role models and homegrown heroes to kids of all ages. But Diego is reluctant to trust anyone, even the woman he comes to love. This reluctance, which he calls “protecting her” and she calls “shutting her out,” serves as the real obstacle to their relationship. It’s only when he adopts some of Lilí’s willingness to put her heart on the line that they find their way to each other and discover they truly are, as Oliveras’ series’ name suggests, Matched to Perfection.

Millie Morris of My Favorite Half-Night Stand laughs it off (mostly) when an online dating program tells her she’s a 98 percent match with her best friend, Reid Campbell. But she lets the program “connect” them as a joke, using her middle name and a shadowy profile pic for her account, and is stunned to find herself opening up to him on a level she’s never managed before. Reid’s the person she values and trusts most in the world, but she’s always kept her deepest thoughts, feelings, stories and experiences entirely to herself. Millie doesn’t know how to open up, not even to Reid. But her digital alter ego “Catherine” does. As time passes, Catherine grows closer to Reid emotionally and Millie grows closer to him physically when they start sleeping together (one of the “web lingo” terms they learn is the concept of a half-night stand: when you hook up but leave as soon as the sex is over). Meanwhile, Millie finds herself increasingly torn over what she wants, what she has to offer and what she could possibly tell Reid to make him forgive the snowballing deception.

The writing duo that makes up Christina Lauren manage comedy so well that the emotional depth can sneak up on you like a sucker punch. It’s not an exaggeration to say I laughed and I cried—sometimes simultaneously, such as during a story Catherine tells about her experiences with a childhood bully. The romance is complicated by the moral ambiguity of Millie’s choices, but the writers develop the character so carefully and deliberately, with such compassion for her experiences, that her behavior becomes something that can be understood, even if it can’t really be excused. And the Greek chorus of Millie and Reid’s tightly knit and utterly hilarious group of friends adds to the drama, the comedy and the sweetness of the conclusion by showing the different kind of community that like-minded, loving people can build together.

Tired of holly and mistletoe? Sick of eggnog? Ready to punch the next person who gets “Santa Baby” stuck in your head? Have no fear, these lovely stories are here for your fix of red-hot contemporary romance to warm you head to toe this December—without Christmas playing into the plots at all. These stories don’t feature nativity scenes, Christmas trees or twinkling lights, but each one delivers a strong dose of family love, a hefty helping of communities coming together and a generous display of hearts opening to the idea of real and lasting love.

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There’s something so delectable about a really juicy secret. The right kind of mystery or surprise hits a story like an earthquake, rattling things off the shelves and leaving everyone scrambling for stable footing. A secret can bring a story to life, lighting a fire under the characters and forcing them to decide what they truly value and how far they’ll go to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Thomas Powell, heir to the Duke of Northfield and hero of Eva Leigh’s Dare to Love a Duke, is rich, handsome, capable, privileged, spoiled, dissolute and so bored with it all that the reader half expects him to run off to join the circus just to do something new. He believes he’s seen it all, until a friend takes him to a masked, equal opportunity sex club straight out of Eyes Wide Shut. Yet even when he’s surrounded by carnality in every imaginable combination, the only person to catch his eye is the beautiful and mysterious manager of the Orchid Club, Lucia Marini. Thomas’ pursuit of her is halted when his father unexpectedly dies, leaving him the title, the estate, a heavy load of responsibilities on his shoulders—and the absolutely stunning discovery that his staid, conservative father was the owner of the Orchid Club.

The club scenes are so sensually described by Leigh that they might have overshadowed the main plot if the characters were any less engaging and dynamic than Lucia and Tom. As it is, the wanton adventurousness of the club can’t hold a candle to the heat and tension that sparks between our hero and heroine, whether they’re dressed or not. The same passion they bring to the bedroom is reflected in all the aspects of their lives, as Tom grapples with how to balance his conscience and his sense of duty, and Lucia struggles to build a legacy she can be proud of in spite of a troubled past. Their road to happily ever after isn’t smooth or easy (where would be the fun in that?), but it leads to a fun and quite satisfying ride.

By contrast, the heroine in Elizabeth Hoyt’s Not the Duke’s Darling seems like a perfectly respectable lady’s companion—as long as you aren’t aware of the spy work Freya de Moray secretly performs for the order of Wise Women, or the dark scandal in her past. But all her secrets risk exposure during at a house party where she’s targeted by witch hunters and in turn forced to interact with the man she blames for destroying her family. When Freya recognizes Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe, she vows that she won’t waste this opportunity for revenge. The chemistry flaring between them is just the fiery passion of her hatred, right? Surely, it couldn’t be anything else . . .

There are so many secrets and scandals in this story that what I’ve written so far barely scratches the surface. (Are you looking for a neighbor who might be hiding matrimonial murder? This book has it. How about a secret affair with compromising letters leading to blackmail? Yep, they’re here, too.) There’s never a dull moment in Not the Duke’s Darling, and many of the truths revealed are genuinely shocking. But the biggest surprise may be how naturally the relationship between the characters grows from animosity, to attraction, to compassion, to respect. Falling in love with the “enemy” can be a hard sell, but Hoyt masters it beautifully. Most interestingly, the biggest obstacle between the two ends up being the future, rather than the past. In a period when wives were treated as not-very-bright pets rather than partners, Freya has trouble imagining giving up her independence. It takes a leap of faith to realize that Christopher truly sees her the way she wants to be seen, and intends to build a life with her as equals. Talk about shocking!

There’s something so delectable about a really juicy secret. The right kind of mystery or surprise hits a story like an earthquake, rattling things off the shelves and leaving everyone scrambling for stable footing.

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Every girl dreams of being Cinderella, swept away from drudgery into a life of luxury and comfort. How delightful it is to see stories that take the opposite tack, yanking heroines from their safe, secure bubbles and throwing them out into the real world to see if they’re able to survive—and maybe even thrive. There’s a strange sort of freedom in leaving behind everything you’ve known and finding a fresh start, and that’s exactly what makes these heroines and their delightful stories so compelling.

Delilah, the utterly charming heroine of Julie Anne Long’s Lady Derring Takes a Lover, lost everything with the death of her husband—her belongings (repossessed by the creditors of her spendthrift husband); her home (entailed to a distant relative); her staff (poached by other society matrons); and her last shred of interest in behaving like a proper lady. Instead of seeking to marry again, or throwing herself on the mercy of relatives, Delilah takes the one piece of property her husband actually owned outright and, with the help of her late husband’s mistress who becomes her new best friend, she turns it into a boardinghouse: The Grand Palace on the Thames. Yes, it’s in the middle of a wretched neighborhood. Yes, they have no idea how to run a business. Yes, they get strange looks when they insist on running the place along very particular terms (including a strict curfew and a swear jar in the sitting room), but it’s still everything Delilah ever wanted. It’s hers. It’s a place where she feels safe. And it offers her a life where she’ll never have to depend on a man again.

But then Captain Tristan Hardy arrives.

After clawing his way out of the London slums and into a position of honor and esteem in His Majesty’s Navy, Tristan has learned to put nothing and no one ahead of duty. When his investigation into a smuggling ring leads him to the boardinghouse, he intends to keep his eyes open and his emotions detached. But who could be detached in the face of The Grand Palace’s cozy furnishings, quirky guests and beautiful hostesses? The interludes of sensuality and passion between Delilah and Tristan are rich and vivid, but no less engaging is the sheer pleasure they take in learning about each other—and surprising each other. Long’s wit is sharp, clever and hilariously effective, but it’s the warmth and gentleness of Lady Derring that make every page of the story a lovely place to visit—precisely the sort of safe haven Delilah would have wanted.

By contrast, Amy Sandas’s heroine in The Cowboy’s Honor, Boston heiress Courtney Adams, leaves her safe, secure life behind in a full-blown run when she heads out west. When she accidentally receives a letter proving that her fiancé has been unfaithful, Courtney realizes that her meticulously arranged marriage is a mistake. She makes a wild bid for freedom by trading her bridal jewelry for a ticket and fleeing—still in her wedding gown—to the Montana Territory. She couldn’t have known that her sudden arrival and excessively bridal attire would send the wrong message to gruff rancher Dean Lawton, whose brother has been threatening to acquire him a mail-order bride.

Misunderstandings accidentally lead to matrimony and the situation only worsens when the local judge refuses to grant an annulment until they’ve given the marriage one month’s “fair trial.” One minute seems to be longer than they can spend together before barbs start flying, but the heat they generate turns just as quickly to desire. They rub each other the wrong way . . . and the right way . . . and pretty much every imaginable way as they stumble together in spite of themselves. Gradually, Dean comes to appreciate Courtney’s relentless optimism, her refusal to back down from a challenge and her delight in learning or discovering something new. And Courtney comes to value Dean’s dedication, integrity and strength. It’s lovely to see them grow together as they move forward into the people they were always meant to be—and discover that their mistaken marriage was a perfect match after all.

Every girl dreams of being Cinderella, swept away from drudgery into a life of luxury and comfort. But how very interesting it is to see stories that take the opposite tack, yanking heroines from their safe, secure bubbles and throwing them out into the real world to see if they’re able to survive—and maybe even thrive. There’s a strange sort of freedom in leaving behind everything you’ve known and finding a fresh start, and that’s exactly what makes these heroines and their delightful stories so compelling.

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Boss and secretary. Doctor and nurse. Parent and nanny. Romance is filled with stories where the emotionally charged proximity of employer and employee cause hearts to ignite. But falling in love on the job can mean more than flirty innuendo over takeout while pulling an all-nighter, or steamy sex on the conference room table. These terrific new stories are playful and naughty and fun, but they’ve also got surprises up their sleeves.

Working for Logan Prescott is just about the last thing in the world Claire McKenna, heroine of Jamie Beck’s The Promise of Us, wants. Not only is he the boy-next-door, childhood crush she never quite got over, he’s also the brother of Peyton Prescott, her former bestie who betrayed Claire by stealing her boyfriend, Todd. It doesn’t matter that Todd fled after Peyton was diagnosed with breast cancer. All that matters is making sure her life remains Prescott-free forever and ever, amen. But Logan’s not willing to leave matters like that and tilts the situation in his favor by making Claire an irresistible offer—hiring her to redecorate his apartment, throwing her a financial lifeline to keep her beloved business going. And in the meantime, he throws in a seduction that turns her quiet life upside down.

Claire’s life needs a little rattling. After a traumatic injury during her teens, she’s spent her adulthood playing it stiflingly safe. Logan challenges her in a multitude of ways, though the author is wise enough to show that not all of those challenges pay off. She also plays with the usual expectations by showing that gorgeous, charming Logan is not always nice. He can be manipulative. Calculating. Downright cunning in the right mood and fiercely cutting in the wrong one. When Claire lists her reasons for why they won’t work, they aren’t strawman arguments—they’re real and rational, true challenges for them to overcome in a story where nothing ever seems like a foregone conclusion. Everything feels profoundly realistic, not only in the depth of the conflicts but also in the thorough grounding in the present, with references to current bestsellers, recent natural disasters, even topical man-made tragedies. The injury Claire suffered was from a mass shooting. A refugee crisis is referenced. This might be off-putting for readers seeking an escape from reality, but I think others will find it refreshing to turn the pages and meet people having serious discussions about real issues—as well as serious struggles against real obstacles as they find their way to each other.

“Struggling” is a familiar state to the hero and heroine of Under the Table. Zoey Sullivan is trying to rebuild a new life after the collapse of her marriage, turning a long-time passion for cooking into a semi-steady career as a private caterer. And Tristan Malloy, the very rich, very handsome, very, very shy hero who hires her to cater a small dinner party, is struggling to get out of his beautiful museum of an apartment and figure out a life to lead.

Tristan was raised in a quiet, sheltered Caribbean community by his grandparents who brought him up to have extremely polite, strongly principled and totally ignorant of modern media. The end result is a guy who appears to be “stuck in a time warp of manners, courtesy, and pleated pants.” Not one to avoid hard work, Tristan has come to New York to figure out what comes next. And not one to back away from a challenge, Zoey is determined to help. She takes him shopping for skinny jeans. She brings him to a nightclub. She introduces him to delivery pizza and Guitar Hero. But while she’s playing Pygmalion with Tristan, Zoey is also dealing with her own doubts and insecurities over her separation from her emotionally abusive husband, her mingled love and resentment of her carefree and careless sister/roommate, and her uncertainty about where she belongs.

It’s lovely to read a romance where the characters spend so much time being good to each other and good for each other. They don’t get everything right—there wouldn’t be much of a story if they did—but there’s no fighting just for the sake of building drama. Their intentions nearly always stem from a genuine desire to do what’s decent and honorable, which takes a kind of courage that’s rare and special. And while the ending didn’t have me totally convinced (the revelation of a secondary character’s motives didn’t quite ring true), I still admired the way the heroine made the final decision to confront her problems head-on, having the conversations she needed to have, even if they hurt. Both of the characters struggle throughout the book, but even more than the challenges that arise, you’ll remember the strength they showed in the face of them.

Boss and secretary. Doctor and nurse. Parent and nanny. Romance is filled with stories where the emotionally charged proximity of employer and employee cause hearts to ignite. But falling in love on the job can mean more than flirty innuendo over takeout while pulling an all-nighter, or steamy sex on the conference room table. These terrific new stories are playful and naughty and fun, but they’ve also got surprises up their sleeves.

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It’s been over 200 years since the death of Jane Austen, and it’s a testament to her storytelling that variations on Pride and Prejudice continue to charm readers over and over again. But it’s also a testament to the authors of these latest releases that their takes on the classic feel current, relevant and new. 

Uzma Jalaluddin’s debut novel, Ayesha at Last, challenges expectations right from the start by moving Austen’s story from the much-romanticized drawing rooms of Regency England into a community of Muslim immigrants in Canada. As you might imagine, there’s (unfortunately) plenty of prejudice to spare, particularly towards Khalid Mirza, a computer programmer in Toronto whose devout Muslim faith and strict adherence to tradition make him an immediate target. But he’s not above a little hasty judgment himself, leading to instant conflict with Ayesha Shamsi when he meets her at an open-mic poetry event. Something about Ayesha moves Khalid, but this also disturbs him, since he’s been raised to believe that love is meant to come after marriage—a marriage that must be arranged by his family and his bride’s. Jalaluddin’s modern story blends shockingly well with the original plot of Pride and Prejudice. Khalid and Ayesha’s close-knit Indian-Canadian community bears a striking resemblance to Regency-era British society, with its sharply defined ranks, rapid-fire gossip, emphasis on parents arranging matches and potential for a scandal to sink the matrimonial fortunes of an entire family. Would a modern Elizabeth Bennet, living in England, worry that her sister’s elopement would cast a stain on the family? Nope. But a modern Ayesha Shamsi would.

The blistering dynamic between Darcy and Elizabeth has been captured in many different forms over the years, but in Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, Sonali Dev absolutely nails it to the wall. Her take on Austen borrows its structure from the original but weaves in engrossing new plot threads and dynamic emotional twists. Trisha Raje is a renowned neurosurgeon, the descendant of actual Indian royalty and the sister of the leading candidate for governor of California, so perhaps she has some justification if she is, indeed, proud. (Spoiler: She is.) But her behavior makes it all too easy for DJ Caine—an accomplished chef who has used his skills and reputation to rise above a background of poverty and racism—to willfully misunderstand her. (Spoiler: He does.) However, DJ also happens to need Trisha, since she’s the only surgeon who can successfully extract the brain tumor that’s killing his sister. Not to mention that he can’t pay the medical bills without the catering contract he hopes to secure from Trisha’s fabulously wealthy, influential family. Dev pushes the couple together in an exquisitely agonizing dance of one step forward, two steps back as DJ’s wounded pride and Trisha’s social awkwardness turn every conversation into a worst-case scenario. Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors is surprising and unexpected, delivering unapologetic lessons about what prejudice looks like today. From police discrimination opening Trisha’s eyes to her own privilege to a late-in-the-story confession darkly echoing the #MeToo movement, Dev transforms a 200-year-old tale into a searing, clear-eyed portrait of our current reality.

It’s been over 200 years since the death of Jane Austen, and it’s a testament to her storytelling that variations on Pride and Prejudice continue to charm readers over and over again. But it’s also a testament to the authors of these latest releases that their takes on the classic feel current, relevant and new. 

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