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All Contemporary Romance Coverage

With Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words, Annika Sharma kicks off a new contemporary rom-com series about four South Asian friends living in New York City. Four besties make up the Chai Masala Club, also known as the CMC. Kiran, Payal, Akash and Sonam are as varied and vibrant as the Empire State, which Sharma has imbued with a heartbeat and perspective to rival the story’s other secondary characters. The city is more than just a place; it’s the foundation for everything that happens to the CMC.

A perfect literary companion to the author’s popular podcast, “The Woke Desi,” this romance focuses on Indian immigrant Kiran Mathur, a biomedical engineer and dynamic woman raised by traditional, conservative parents. She often feels the pull of opposing obligations among her family, her culture and herself, but her list of things she’d like to accomplish before turning 30 is her own, for the most part. The things that were quickly crossed off, like seeing the Empire State Building and a Broadway play, were fun and easy. Riding a horse, playing games at an arcade and dancing under the stars are so far unchecked but, again, fun and easy to accomplish. The things that really matter, like falling in love and reuniting her older sister, Kirti, with Ma and Baba . . . those are more serious. More daunting. 

Kiran’s new neighbor, Nash Hawthorne, is a fellow big-city transplant whose goal is to become a child psychologist at a hospital downtown. He’s handsome, tempting and as interested in Kiran as she is in him. But whereas he lost his parents as a child, Kiran grew up in the shadow of her family. Not only does Nash have to learn about Kiran’s Indian parents, he has to learn about the obligations any child feels toward their parents.

Sharma packs every sentence with information in this book. And every bit of information hints at important decisions the characters must make. Nash is uninformed about Kiran’s culture, but he works hard to learn about and understand her. Where he sees disapproval and isolation, Kiran sees tradition and responsibility. Kiran has to take into consideration the fact that Kirti was disowned for falling in love with a man her parents didn’t choose, and that her parents would be devastated if Kiran didn’t marry an Indian man.

It’s a lot of responsibility, and the heaviness of tradition weighs profoundly on Kiran’s shoulders. She works hard to stay present, but her wants and desires are constantly in battle with her parents’, and with her own reluctance to step out of line. Sharma poses the difficult question of how younger generations can evolve while still observing the practices of generations past. How lenient should we be with our parents and grandparents about their outdated opinions and practices? Are they even outdated? Should we try to teach them to be better? More future-thinking and progressive? How do you move forward if everybody stays on pause and never grows?

There’s a lot to think about in this forbidden love story, chiefly how brave someone must be to follow their heart. Falling in love is terrifying, but in the end Kiran and Nash find their four-letter word.

In this dynamic rom-com, Annika Sharma explores how younger generations can evolve while still observing the practices of generations past.

These contemporary romances are ensconced in the world of professional athletics and fitness, but emotional lifting takes greater precedence than squats.

In The Dating Playbook, the second rom-com in Farrah Rochon’s knockout Boyfriend Project series, a personal trainer with a struggling practice teams up with a high-profile former NFL player facing multiple hurdles to give him a second chance at playing pro ball.

Taylor Powell has always felt like the black sheep in her high-achieving family. While her siblings soared, school meant suffering and panic attacks for Taylor. She squeaked by in high school, but her lack of college degree has been the deciding factor in several lost professional opportunities. Now she works as a personal trainer and has a tight circle of female friends, a sisterhood of women (introduced in The Boyfriend Project) who all learned through social media that they were dating the same sad-sack, low-rent player. And yet, despite their generosity and support, their professional prowess exacerbates her feelings of failure by comparison, a situation made worse by Taylor’s undiagnosed ADHD.

Jamar Dixon, on the other hand, is used to being a star. He excelled at football and got a dream job playing professionally right out of college. But an injury in his first season cut his career short. Taylor’s relative anonymity will help Jamar keep his training a secret, away from the prying eyes of the press and the public pressure to come back better than ever. And apart from the overdue bills that this lucrative gig will help Taylor pay for, being the architect of a successful comeback for a football star could be just the career-making boost she needs. To make sure Jamar’s training remains a secret until he’s ready to return and she’s ready for the spotlight, they agree to pretend to date in order to throw everyone off the scent.

It’s a great setup and well executed, with each character scratching just the right itch for the other. They both have a lot riding on their professional partnership and ample reason to keep it under wraps. Like the best rom-com couples, Taylor and Jamar are much more than the sum of their individual parts. They’re absolutely lovely together, making Rochon’s choice to have the friend group play a lesser role in this installment a wise one. The Dating Playbook is a gentle and relatively low-angst romance that makes a great comfort read in stressful times.

The comedy is a bit broader and the chemistry is more volatile in Alexis Daria’s crazy, sexy, cool second-chance romance A Lot Like Adiós.

After a young lifetime of being badgered and bullied by his parents, Gabe Aguilar was desperate to get out of the Bronx and away from his judgmental and domineering father. In an act of defiance, unbeknownst to Michelle Amato, his best friend and next-door neighbor whom he always had a crush on, Gabe applied to UCLA, got a scholarship and left everything behind, including the friendship that sustained him for most of his life. Thirteen years later, Gabe is a physiotherapist and co-owner of a successful Los Angeles gym called Agility. Michelle and Gabe are thrown together again when Fabian, Gabe’s business partner, sees a splashy marketing campaign that Michelle designed and recruits her to work on the launch of their first East Coast branch.

Gabe and Michelle have a ton of unresolved sexual tension, and they’re both curious about and longing to see each other. The main challenge, apart from the fact that he thoroughly ghosted her in order to make a fresh start in LA and never really explained why, is that Gabe isn’t ready to deal with being back in New York. Even beyond his issues with his family, not knowing how to push back against other people’s expectations has long been a problem for him.

Michelle’s terms for accepting the job include Gabe staying with her on this trip, so they can hash out their differences. She wants closure, so she engineers a little forced proximity to force the issue. To say that the scheme works is an understatement. Gabe and Michelle share a connection that is instinctual and hot like fire—not just habanero or scotch bonnet hot, but ghost pepper hot. In the bedroom, at the zoo, in the basement gym, everywhere they go, there’s heat. Daria masterfully blends that steam with character building and emotional connection from the start. Their love scenes are nothing short of spectacular, full of communication and creativity as well as physical spark.

Daria portrays Gabe with particular sensitivity. His character is specific and concrete, his wariness, dysfunction and emotional pain palpable on the page. In an effectively cringeworthy scene, Gabe’s worst fears come true when he and his father finally come face-to-face. It’s tender but also funny in a Larry David-esque way, excruciating and human all at once. Unfortunately, the story skims over his path to healing, narrowing the steps Gabe takes to mend his psychological wounds to one significant epiphany with not much in the way of follow-up. Readers’ mileage may vary when it comes to the resolution and HEA, which lean hard on embracing the love and support of family, making it almost sound like a miracle cure. It’s a curious note in an otherwise truly irresistible arrangement.

These contemporary romances are ensconced in the world of professional athletics and fitness, but emotional lifting takes greater precedence than squats.

These witchy rom-coms are whimsical and hilarious—with just a touch of wickedness.

Witch Please

In Witch Please by Ann Aguirre, Danica Waterhouse knows the rules: Mundanes are off-limits. She interacts with them as needed to keep her electronic repair business running, but they can never know the truth about her power, and they can never be considered romantically. The family curse says falling for a mundane will drain a Waterhouse witch’s magic away. Magic binds Danica to her work, her family, her coven—everything that matters. So when she meets the most incredible man, and feels the most incredible draw to him, she makes an incredible effort to keep her distance . . . and fails. Because Titus Winnaker is amazing: handsome, funny, goofy and smitten with Danica from the start. And he bakes. And he’s a volunteer firefighter. And he’s absolutely forbidden.

Smart, strong, determined and compassionate, Danica knows how to fix everything except her own heart, and her turmoil is palpable on the page. Endearing, clueless Titus is a beautiful cinnamon roll, too sweet for this world. The most magical moments they share don’t involve any witchcraft at all but instead feature two people simply being good to each other, in every imaginable way. Aguirre has concocted an exciting, engaging whirl of a story.

The Ex Hex

Vivienne Jones—spurred on by her broken heart, her loyal, vengeful cousin and way too much vodka—curses her no-good, horrible ex to have bad hair, bad sex and bad luck forever and ever, amen. However, when Rhys Penhallow returns to the small town of Graves Glen, Georgia, nine years later, his hair is still perfect and his sex appeal is still intact. So Vivi concludes, with a little sadness and a little relief, that her momentary whim of a curse didn’t take. But then a series of mishaps proves that bad luck has infected the town, potentially leading to disaster if the situation isn’t solved by Samhain, which is fast approaching.

While The Ex Hex is pure rom-com with its fun tone and witty characters, author Erin Sterling takes things deeper with potent, beautifully portrayed symbolism, especially when it comes to tarot cards and the intriguing, melancholy mystery tangled up with the curse. It’s a romance magically enhanced to be more vivid, more daring and more potentially deadly, and it’s all the more satisfying for it.

Payback’s a Witch

In Lana Harper’s Payback’s a Witch, there’s not just one witch scorned. There are three. Emmy Harlow left town as a brokenhearted teen after being used and discarded by Gareth Blackmoore, scion of the richest, most influential family in Thistle Grove. The four witch families that founded the town still run things, but the lion’s share of power and influence goes to whichever family wins the “Gauntlet,” a semicentennial event that the Blackmoores have won pretty much every time. The Thorns and the Avramovs have always lagged behind, and the Harlows have never stood a chance—which is why Emmy got the whole “It’s not you, it’s how utterly insignificant your family is” brush-off from Gareth years ago. But now she’s back, and she learns that Gareth has since toyed with Emmy’s longtime bestie, Linden Thorn, and also with Emmy’s secret high school crush, the stunning, untouchable Talia Avramov. And thus an alliance is formed as the three women come together with the goal of toppling the ascendency of the Blackmoores and putting Gareth firmly in his place.

Harper’s adult debut is gorgeous in every way. It’s hilariously funny, deeply moving, powerfully uplifting and so glue-you-to-the-page engrossing that this reviewer literally did not put it down for the final hundred pages. The love story between Talia and Emmy develops beautifully, but the true romance is with the town and the community. The bonds of both family and friendship shine from start to finish, and Harper balances the different clans and captures how, together, they make Thistle Grove the magical place that it is.

These witchy rom-coms are whimsical and hilarious—with just a touch of wickedness.

Enemies to lovers is a favorite romance trope, and two new titles up the ante by making their central couples not just personal rivals but professional ones as well.

The prolific Meg Cabot is an expert in matters of the heart, having written love stories between characters from middle school to middle age. In No Words, the third book in her Little Bridge Island series, readers are once again whisked away to the lovely Florida Keys for a little sun, fun and romance.

Jo Wright is a children’s author who recently received an invitation to speak at Little Bridge Island’s first book festival. She’s successful and beloved by her legions of young readers, not just for the adventures in the books she writes but for the way she interacts with and treats them.

The lure of good money is hard for Jo to resist, but she wants nothing to do with one of the festival’s other invitees: arrogant novelist Will Prince, the man who once maligned Jo’s work to the New York Times. When she hears that Will is going to be out of the country that week, visiting the set of a film adaptation of his new book, she agrees to attend. Too late she discovers that not only does Will own Little Bridge Island, he is bankrolling the festival and very much in attendance.

Worshipped by the legions of women who read his angst-filled dramas, Will’s the Nicholas Sparks to Jo’s Judy Blume. She’s not interested in an apology, but the Will she meets on Little Bridge Island is awkward and sweet, and willing to go to great lengths to make amends. In a refreshing twist on the trope, he’s an enemy who begins the book hoping to change their status and ready to put in the work.

No Words doesn’t have much in the way of tension or conflict, making it a quick, easy and lighthearted read (despite the huge cast of side characters). Cabot is a whiz at writing dialogue that’s both charming and believable, and she riffs on her years of experience in the publishing industry in snarky, silly ways that will bring readers plenty of laughs alongside this love story.

Julia London’s It Started With a Dog is a fun rom-com full of dog puns and good-natured, never mean-spirited competition that pits two like-minded coffee aficionados against one another.

When Harper Thompson and Jonah Rogers accidentally swap phones, neither knows that the trajectory of their life will be changed forever. In the process of getting the phones back to their rightful owners, Harper and Jonah learn that they have much in common, from favorite movies and food to their love of dogs and coffee. Both even have professional nemeses: each other.

Harper’s shiny new coffeehouse, Deja Brew, is bad news for the Lucky Star coffee shop, which is owned by Jonah’s family. The town isn’t big enough for two coffee shops, and something must be done. Harper and Jonah decide to organize a delightful battle of the baristas, but one for a good cause. As a way to raise funds for a local dog shelter, each shop will foster a rescue dog and urge their patrons to vote for their adorable new mascot to be named King Mutt.

London does a great job of developing characters who are likeable, engaging and relatable. Harper’s Type A personality is tons of fun (in London’s capable hands, she’s never irritating or unbelievable), and Jonah’s ability to step in and save the day for his family is a perfect example of how attractive sheer competence can be. It Started With a Dog is almost as good as a lavender latte.

Enemies to lovers is a favorite romance trope, and two new titles up the ante by making their central couples not just personal rivals but professional ones as well.

Penny Aimes’ debut romance, For the Love of April French, is a remarkable and tender story of acceptance, an exploration of self-reflection and a tantalizing slow burn between two compelling leads.

The eponymous April French has a complicated relationship with her Austin-area kink club. As a transgender woman, it's been her mission to make the community feel as inclusive as possible. But the group's members either see her as a supportive, maternal figure or a novelty, rather than as a potential romantic partner or kink participant. April is also still healing from an abusive dominant who took advantage of their power differentials.

Dennis Martin, a wealthy man originally from Seattle, is a newcomer to Austin. He carries his own baggage within the kink community, burdened by past mistakes he made as a new dom. He and his longtime partner experimented with BDSM, but their mutual inexperience led to broken trust and, eventually, the end of their relationship.

To call this romance a slow burn, while apt, wouldn’t fully do justice to Dennis and April’s love story. Their connection is instant, but both are extremely guarded and raw from past experiences. April is used to temporary fascination and assumes abandonment is imminent. While Dennis has done the work to become a more cognizant dom to his partners, he’s still wary of ruining that fragile relationship. Their sexual needs align, but so do their insecurities surrounding power and trust.

Aimes weaves in plenty of commentary on and positive portrayal of kink communities and the purpose they serve for their members. Consent is at the forefront of many interactions, providing examples of both enthusiastic consent and the dangers of miscommunication between partners. The layers of attraction are slowly peeled back as April and Dennis’ electric physical connection evolves into a relationship in which their emotional fears are laid bare. Though the romance between Dennis and April is in the foreground, Aimes also pays attention to both characters’ internal journeys toward forgiving themselves for their mistakes and finding the strength to persevere through past trauma. The romance is incredibly sweet, and the BDSM and kink scenes are off-the-charts hot. It’s a nearly seamless blend of cozy courtship and seductive, compelling eroticism between two soft, adorable nerds.

A nuanced depiction of kinky queer communities that is clearly written from a place of earnest love and appreciation, For the Love of April French proves that heartwarming fluff and sexy kink can go hand in hand. The only question that remains is, when can we have more from this rising star of romance?

Penny Aimes’ debut romance, For the Love of April French, is a remarkable and tender story of acceptance, an exploration of self-reflection and a tantalizing slow burn between two compelling leads.

The Heart Principle is easily one of the year’s most anticipated romances, as it stars a character who’s been a fan favorite ever since Helen Hoang’s 2018 debut, The Kiss Quotient. It’s finally time for charming, fashionable, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep to meet his match.

That match is Anna Sun, a violinist who recently went viral online and skyrocketed to success. But now she’s burned out creatively and emotionally, much to the dismay of her ambitious parents. What’s more, her longtime boyfriend proposes an open relationship instead of marriage. He’s surprised when she agrees, and even more surprised when Anna is actually motivated to find another partner for herself. When she comes across Quan’s profile on a dating app, she thinks he seems like a fun fling. But Quan exceeds her expectations with his supportive, sweet nature. Soon, Anna finds herself turning to Quan in stressful and upsetting situations, even more so after Anna’s father winds up in the hospital, which complicates their “casual” arrangement. 

Quan will instantly win over readers with his wonderful combination of bad boy vibes on the outside and an adorably gooey center on the inside. Given his litany of tattoos and his adrenaline-seeking personality, Quan is not the boyfriend Anna’s parents would have chosen for her. That sparks a hint of rebellion in Anna, who is growing tired of being the person her family, friends, boyfriend and the public expect her to be. 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: How Helen Hoang wrote what she calls her hardest book yet.

Reading a Hoang romance often involves tears, given her knack for homing in on uncomfortable emotions and human vulnerability. The Heart Principle is no different, and it will offer much-needed catharsis to readers who can identify with Anna’s burnout and restlessness. And like Hoang’s previous romance novels, this is a heroine-centric story with intimate ties to the author’s own life experiences. (Don’t skip the author’s notes at the end of Hoang’s books!) Anna and Quan’s love story blossoms out of acceptance—both self-acceptance and being fully accepted by another person, even when plagued by thoughts of inadequacy.

Those who have been fans of Hoang’s contemporary romances since the beginning will be overjoyed to finally get Quan’s story. It does not disappoint. And new readers will most likely sprint to the nearest library or bookstore to get their hands on Hoang’s other two books. That’s how much The Heart Principle lives up to the hype: Hoang has once again displayed her mastery of both complicated emotions and naturalistic, earthy eroticism.

The Heart Principle is easily one of the year’s most anticipated romances, as it stars a character who’s been a fan favorite ever since Helen Hoang’s 2018 debut, The Kiss Quotient.

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