These contemporary romances encompass an incredible range of topics: a political marriage of convenience, a big-city cop escaping sexual harassment in a small town, a cold-case murder mystery and a second chance for first love. But one theme runs through them all—powerful, complicated women fighting for autonomy and, somewhat secondarily, finding themselves falling in love.
Truth, Lies, and Second Dates
MaryJanice Davidson blends romance, horror and cozy mystery into a frothy tale of a star pilot who teams up with a hot medical examiner to solve her best friend’s murder on the 10-year anniversary of said friend’s death. When Captain Ava Capp finds herself in Minnesota at the same time as the memorial service, she receives a hostile welcome from her friend’s family, who suspect she may have had something to do with the murder, but finds an ally in the stern but sexy local M.E. Tom Baker. As a series of strange things start happening around her that may or may not be tied to the anniversary, Ava needs the support. She’s been pretty much alone for the past decade, with her career as her only constant. She’s used to hotel rooms and functional, transitional friends-with-benefits arrangements but no real personal connections. Grounded and family-oriented Tom offers something more (he's also on the autism spectrum, which Davidson refreshingly depicts with the same good-spirited and zany humor she bring to everything else).
Reading Truth, Lies, and Second Dates feels like riding a roller coaster—twisty, turny and full of surprises. Davidson delivers a really good time if you enjoy the book's somewhat frantic, sometimes stream-of-consciousness third-person narration, which puts you in the center of Ava’s chaotic point of view. There’s a diary-like quality to many chapters, which frequently leap from one topic to another, sometimes mid-sentence, as we follow Ava’s trajectory. There’s also wonderful, flirtatious banter between the two highly intelligent and distinctive main characters, an element of their relationship that is particularly important to Tom, since he is demisexual (he doesn’t feel attraction until he has formed an emotional connection to someone). But the mystery element can also be hard to follow at times, so don’t expect a clear or solid trail leading to the culprit. Overall, this is an uncut gem with only a few slightly ragged edges.
How to Catch a Queen
How to Catch a Queen is a finely polished jewel of a novel about opposites not only attracting, but making each other whole. Cole has been doing this for a while and it shows: How to Catch a Queen is the first book in her Runaway Royals series, which is a spinoff from her critically acclaimed and award-winning Reluctant Royals trilogy. King Sanyu of Njaza is wracked with anxiety and self-doubt about his destiny. But when his father’s health takes a turn for the worse, he’s expected to find a queen at short notice. His union with Shanti Mohapti is a temporary and hastily arranged formality, a “trial marriage” facilitated through a royal matchmaking website, of all things. No one expects true love to take hold between a man who was born to be king but doubts his own fitness to rule, and a brilliant farm girl who believes it is her destiny to be a queen. Shanti is a consummate and focused professional who has prioritized career goals over her personal life—she’s studied politics and economics, sits on the board of several charities and has never given up her childhood dream of becoming a queen. She is very good at what she does, and sometimes attracts friction because of it.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our reviews of other books by Alyssa Cole.
Cole has crafted a compelling story about opposites and allies falling in love that is rich in political intrigue and social observation. Her depiction of the dynamics of politics, gender and ideology in this ostensibly fairytale-esque land is shockingly astute. It’s fascinating to see how these two individuals interact with each other and how larger social forces act upon them while they get to know each other. Shanti arrives in Njaza armed with dreams and binders full of research and strategic plans. She has education, confidence and political savvy enough for them both, and is just the partner Sanyu needs to move his country forward. However, it’s difficult for her to find her footing in the traditional, patriarchal monarchy she’s found herself in, since she’s both an outsider and a woman. Plus, there’s quite a bit of palace intrigue and jockeying for power among different factions working against them as well. Though Shanti is an ideal ally, Sanyu wasn’t raised to believe in love or to think that a woman could be his true partner, let alone that they could work together as equals. So he wastes quite a bit of time dodging their obvious attraction, and How to Catch a Queen ends up being a really slow burn as a result. Cole also does impeccable work with the diverse, fully formed and sometimes very funny supporting characters. These layers enrich Shanti and Sanyu’s journey and make the payoff that much sweeter.
Though it’s a more conventional novel, sexual politics also inform Lexi Blake’s small-town romance, Bayou Dreaming. Former military sniper Roxanne King’s divorce and her subsequent move to Louisiana were precipitated by the sexual harassment she suffered in the New York Police Department and the lack of support she received from her family. After filing a complaint that didn’t go anywhere and getting ostracized for it, Roxie starts over in rural Louisiana and finds herself inexplicably attracted to a local bad boy with a heart of gold.
Starting over as a deputy in a very small town suits Roxie fine. She likes her neighbors and she’s good at her job, even if it's less challenging than she’s used to. One year after the big move, though, Roxanne’s family turns up in what they call a visit but looks a lot like an intervention. Their unexpected, unsolicited and frankly unwelcome invasion threatens to overturn Roxie’s hard-earned peace of mind and independence, so she lies and says she has a boyfriend to keep her mother from interfering in her life.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our reviews of other books by Lexi Blake.
Desperate for someone to play the role, she turns to Zep Guidry, a local wildlife expert and Roxie’s one-time hookup partner. After her disastrous marriage and the sexism she fought on the job, Roxie has learned to keep men at a distance. But she can’t quite keep Zep out of her system. She doesn’t want to want him, but she’s inexorably drawn to him anyway. He so haunts her that she finds herself repeatedly arresting him just to have an excuse to keep him near (subconsciously). Zep is hip to her game. After all, he understands animal psychology, and “It wasn’t the first time he’d had some beautiful creature snarl his way even though it was obvious she needed some affection.” Roxie sees Zep as a charming layabout—even his muscles seem unearned—but there’s far more to the “baddest boy of the parish” than she gives him credit for, and her family’s visit forces them into close proximity, allowing these two to explore what’s really between them. Bayou Dreaming is straightforward and perfectly executed. The writing is tight, the characters are well drawn and Blake is especially good at writing swoony love scenes that deepen character and advance the central relationship.
The Way You Hold Me
Skye Palmer, the heroine of Elle Wright's The Way You Hold Me, shares Ava, Shanti and Roxie’s ambition and career focus, but emotionally, she’s more of a mess and she knows it. Thankfully, she’s seeking help. This book is really about Skye’s journey, through therapy and the support of family and friends, towards having the confidence to claim the love that’s always been there for her. What’s particularly challenging is her history of somewhat inexplicably mistreating the man who loves her, and she knows it: “I feel like I suck for treating him that way. Transferring my anger at myself to him is the only way I’ve been able to see him and not either fall apart or beg him to have sex with me.” As this deep history unfolds, Skye’s choices start to make more sense. Garrett was Skye’s first love, and when his mother died, he took responsibility for raising his 10-year-old sister. Garrett's new familial role would have thrust Skye into a step-parent-like position, which she wasn’t ready for, so she broke it off, but never got over him. It was the right move, but it wasn’t executed in the kindest way, and their subsequent run-ins have been less than ideal, with Skye punishing Garrett for transgressions he didn’t commit as a form of self-protection.
Many years later, Skye is working hard on her emotional health as well as her career, and the former lovers find themselves on opposite ends of a celebrity scandal. Garrett is an attorney doing crisis management for Julius Reeves, one of the hottest Black directors in the industry and an “unapologetic ladies’ man” who’s just been accused of sexual harassment. Skye is a public relations expert representing Reeves’ wife, an actress known as “Black America’s Sweetheart.” The case throws them together and their romance finally starts to take root again, despite Skye’s ongoing anxiety and guilt. Over the course of the novel, Skye learns to own her choices and her missteps, but there isn’t quite the amount of groveling that would be expected (and required) were their gender roles reversed. Skye’s anxiety also remains a bit of a mystery. She learns how to better manage her irrational responses, but the book doesn’t really dive into their origins as much as it could.
All four of these books skillfully negotiate a balance between familiar story beats and innovation. All are softly romantic in traditional ways, but also fiercely contemporary and feminist in how they prioritize self-determination for their heroines.