Keira Soleore

Following her stellar debut, The Widow of Rose House, Diana Biller returns with The Brightest Star in Paris, a stunning novel of tender emotions amid harsh circumstances.

This Victorian romance is set in 1878 France, seven years after the horrific events of the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune. It’s an unusual setting for a romance, full of great strife and turmoil, and Biller provides readers with a fabulous immersion into that place and time.

Amelie St. James is a prima ballerina with the Paris Opera Ballet, regularly dancing lead roles at the opulent Palais Garnier. Beloved by Parisians, she has adopted a pious and sweet public persona, earning the nickname “St. Amie.” Life has taught her to keep a tight hold on her emotions and strive to be perfect at everything she does. Amelie is compelling as both her public and private selves, and Biller thoroughly explores her inner thoughts and worries over earning a living by dancing, managing the debilitating pain in her hip, taking care of her 11-year-old sister and stuffing the grief and anger at her mother’s death from syphilis deep down into her heart.

But hidden behind Amelie’s public persona is a chilling truth: She is haunted by spirits, just like her mother was. The ghosts bring Amelie pain and trouble, but they also provide her with a sense of purpose and confidence in helping others. The subplot of the ghosts’ lives and Amelie’s interactions with them could have thrown the entire romance off balance, but these moments are superbly depicted, whether she is healing one ghost’s relationship with their mother or bringing justice to a dancer Amelie knew when she was alive.

Amelie’s delicate balance between her public and private selves is threatened by the return of Dr. Benedict Moore, a gifted neurologist with whom she had a brief but meaningful romance 12 years ago. Ben almost died of malaria during the American Civil War and was still dealing with PTSD when he met Amelie. She brought him back from the dark despair he had sunk into, and he has never forgotten her. Now that he is back in Paris for a conference, the tender feelings between them are rekindled.

While The Brightest Star in Paris is more focused on Amelie’s inner journey than Ben’s, Biller is such a skilled storyteller that readers will  feel deeply for both protagonists as she beautifully unfurls this delicate second-chance romance. Ben is uncomplicatedly and wholly in love with Amelie, whereas Amelie is continually conflicted. On one hand, she loves him immensely, yet she feels she does not deserve his love and the happiness it brings. Furthermore, her mother’s life as a courtesan has taught her that she must keep on striving independently rather than lean on a man for support. Ultimately, The Brightest Star in Paris is the story of how St. Amie transforms back into Amelie, a woman free to choose the life she wants.

In the gorgeously written The Brightest Star in Paris, Biller provides a fascinating view into the psychological makeup of two haunted lovers.

In this gorgeously written romance, Diana Biller provides a fascinating view into the psychological makeup of two haunted lovers.

Anne Gracie’s excellent new romance, The Scoundrel’s Daughter, accomplishes the tricky task of telling two love stories within one book.

It begins with a goose, which Gerald Paton, Viscount Thornton, almost crashes his curricle to avoid running over. However, it is the goose girl who truly raises his ire by lecturing him on his reckless driving.

The goose girl, Lucy Bamber, has always been left behind with friends or distant relatives of her destructive, deviant father, Octavius. Deadened by constant rejection and resentment, she is immature and surly with everyone. After multiple unfortunate experiences with high and mighty (or, even worse, handsy) lords, she sees nothing wrong with taking Gerald down a peg.

Lucy and Gerald’s paths would never have crossed again if not for Octavius, who returns to Lucy’s life and ropes her into his latest scheme. He’s come into possession of some scandalous letters that could ruin Alice, Lady Charlton’s life. The widowed Alice has been forced to sell her household goods in order to pay off the debts of her selfish, profligate but thankfully dead husband. Lucy’s father threatens the already-vulnerable Alice with the release of her husband’s scandalous letters to his mistress unless she agrees to not only bring Lucy out into society, but to get her married to a lord.

As it turns out, Alice is Gerald’s aunt, and when she turns to him for help, he realizes that his aunt’s new charge is the goose girl who cost him his latest race. At first, Gerald believes that Lucy is a fraud who is preying on his beloved aunt. But as he gets to know Lucy, he quickly realizes that she is as much a victim in this scheme as anyone. His protective instincts roused, Gerald turns to his former commanding officer, James, Lord Tarrant, for help.

Both of the love stories in The Scoundrel’s Daughter are compelling, but Alice and James’ hesitant, hard-won romance is especially moving. Alice brimmed with life before her marriage, but her husband ruined her confidence and self-esteem by cruelly deriding her and flaunting his relationship with his mistress. The widowed father of three young girls, James has resigned his commission in the army to dedicate himself to his daughters. Gracie makes it clear from the very beginning that his take-charge attitude has been tempered with deep empathy. James’ patience allows him to see beyond Alice’s prickly demeanor, and he is consistently understanding of her fears surrounding matrimony.

The Scoundrel’s Daughter viscerally examines how cruel actions and words from Lucy’s father and Alice’s husband destroyed their young minds and hearts. Gracie carves out space in both romances to demonstrate how both women’s personalities blossom because of the love and respect they’re shown from the new men in their lives and because of their friendship with one another. This only makes The Scoundrel’s Daughter’s balancing act all the more impressive: Within these two love stories, Gracie paints a beautiful portrait of two women becoming fuller, happier versions of themselves.

Anne Gracie’s excellent new romance, The Scoundrel’s Daughter, accomplishes the tricky task of telling two love stories within one book.

A Duke Worth Fighting For, the final book in Christina Britton’s Isle of Synne series, is a classic "Beauty and the Beast"-esque tale. Margery Kitteridge, the circumspect widow of a soldier who died at the battle of Waterloo, is challenged with aiding Daniel Hayle, the battle-scarred and socially inept Duke of Carlisle, with his matrimonial prospects.

Margery has received an anonymous blackmail note accusing her husband of cowardice and desertion. Desperate to preserve her beloved’s posthumous reputation, Margery is scrambling to come up with the funds to pay the blackmailer. She hits upon the idea of a trade with Daniel: She will help him find a bride in exchange for 100 pounds.

Daniel’s nights are ravaged by guilt, sorrow and nightmares from his experiences in the Napoleonic wars. His days are ravaged by pain and despair, both from his terrible scars and from the fact that he’s now unable to walk without aid. In one especially moving scene, he swims for the first time since Waterloo, and in the water, his body moves beautifully without pain or hindrance. Daniel cries in joy, relief and a whole host of other emotions. As Daniel and Margery spend more and more time together, it becomes clear that she is his perfect counterpart: stable and supportive, a secure sanctuary for a battered soul. Despite her still-present devastation and grief, Margery and Daniel start to build a relationship.

While aspects of A Duke Worth Fighting For evoke the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale and its recent adaptations (for example, there is a dashing, yet dastardly villain a la the Disney films' Gaston character), Britton imbues her novel with a gravitas and poignancy all its own. She sensitively explores how Daniel’s bodily injuries pale in comparison to those inflicted on his soul, balancing darker elements with his growing resiliency and Margery’s inspiring loyalty to the people she loves. A Duke Worth Fighting For is a truly worthy end to the Isle of Synne series.

A Duke Worth Fighting For, the last book in Christina Britton’s Isle of Synne series, is a classic Beauty and the Beast tale.

These witty enemies-to-lovers rom-coms are perfect for both fans of all things royal and readers who are eager for a variation on the trend. Rather than being princes or princesses themselves, the couples in these romances either work for or get sucked into the orbits of royal families.

In Battle Royal, the first book of her Palace Insiders series, Lucy Parker follows two London bakers at war with each other over lucrative, high-profile commissions. 

Dominic De Vere is famous for his exactingly perfect desserts, whereas Sylvie Fairchild is building a reputation for wildly imaginative cakes. They met on the set of “Operation Cake,” a baking show that Dominic judges with stern disdain. Sylvie had a strong run as a contestant thanks to her superb sugar work and unusual designs. Unfortunately, when her unicorn cake exploded and clocked Dominic on the forehead, she was promptly eliminated. Undaunted, Sylvie opened her own bakery bang opposite Dominic’s and proceeded to prove him wrong by making it a success. 

Their worlds collide again when Sylvie is invited to be a judge on “Operation Cake” while both of them are also competing to snag the commission of a lifetime: Princess Rose’s wedding cake. Sparks arc between the bakeries—and between the pastry chefs. As Dominic and Sylvie layer flavor upon flavor and craft intricate details into their cakes, they uncover essential truths about each other and themselves. Parker strikes the perfect balance between relationship growth and delicious, pastry-related escapism.

In Karina Halle’s The Royals Next Door, a duke and duchess’s departure from royal duties leads to romance between two solitary people who find themselves unwillingly fascinated with each other.

Piper is a second grade schoolteacher, diehard romance reader and anonymous podcaster. She also lives with and takes care of her mother, who has borderline and dependent personality disorders. Then the Duke and Duchess of Fairfax—a fictionalized version of England’s Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex—move in next door to Piper’s modest cottage on an island off the coast of British Columbia. Harrison Cole, the duke and duchess’s personal protection officer, takes his job very seriously and is not easily amused by life’s vagaries. He sees Piper as a security hazard; she sees him as a burr under her skin. 

The main couples in both Battle Royal and The Royals Next Door have to take giant leaps of faith into trust and love, giving these royal-adjacent romances a satisfying dose of reality. Parker and Halle have a lot of fun with all the glamorous trappings of royalty, but they temper the whimsy with the emotional inner journeys of their four main characters, all of whom come to terms with their turbulent childhoods over the course of their love stories.

In Battle Royal, Parker slowly reveals that Dominic’s stepfather was openly disdainful of him, and Dominic’s subsequent desire for control over his emotions results in his somewhat narrow-minded arrowing through life. The Royals Next Door’s Harrison was a caregiver to his mother and siblings in his early teens, and  he’s found comfort in adherence to rules ever since. Both men expect structured excellence from themselves and others. Imagine their consternation, then, when they are strongly attracted to whimsical women. 

But under their carefree exteriors, Sylvie and Piper have struggles of their own. Sylvie must overcome recurring feelings of inadequacy, while Piper has been haunted since childhood by her mother’s debilitating illnesses, which contributed to Piper developing anxiety and complex PTSD. Halle does an especially good job of realistically and empathetically depicting Piper’s relationship with her mother, who is never stereotyped or demonized.

Drawing on the strength of the friendships with the royal women they encounter, both Sylvie and Piper gain confidence over the course of their stories. Even with their sorrows, both women retain their desire to eke out a life for themselves that is joyful, which constantly endears them to readers. 

These witty enemies-to-lovers rom-coms are perfect for both fans of all things royal.

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