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Confession time: Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel. There’s just something about it that speaks to me. It’s the idea of growing into the person you’re supposed to be, into the love you’re finally ready to have. The fact that love doesn’t come easily or quickly makes it all the sweeter when it finally falls into place.

That sweetness is front and center in Melodie Edwards’ modernization of Persuasion, Once Persuaded, Twice Shy. Our present-day Anne Elliot is the executive director of a theater festival, which allows her, as in the original, to quietly keep the world running from behind the scenes. But her tidy, well-controlled life is thrown into a tailspin when her ex, Ben Wentworth, reappears in her life, eager to show her how completely and entirely he’s moved on. The quaint Canadian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake supplies the two of them with an ample supporting cast of lovable, quirky, exasperating and endearing characters, but it’s the enduring connection between Anne and Ben that’s the real draw. As they find their way back to each other, they also find their way back to the truest versions of themselves, letting go of old hurts and old burdens and old grudges along the way.

Of course, there are elements that get left behind when a story is transposed to a new time or place. (The author wisely addresses this in a letter to readers that gives context to some of her choices.) Will fans of the original miss the things that got lost in translation? They might. I missed the Harvilles, Captain Benwick and the whole boisterous Musgrove clan—even Mary, hypochondriacal misanthrope that she is. But Edwards’ update has plenty of compensations: There’s warmth, humor, Taylor Swift lyrics for every conceivable scenario and a love story that blooms as beautifully today as it did 200 years ago. The plot takes unexpected twists and turns, tied together with beloved tropes. And the grand finale is a happily ever after that certainly persuaded me, and that I believe will persuade you, too.

Once Persuaded, Twice Shy, Melodie Edwards’ modernization of Persuasion, is a sweet and often surprising take on Jane Austen’s classic novel.
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If you asked romance author Tia Williams what her favorite genre is, you might be surprised to learn it is horror. In fact, she once took a yearlong class on Dracula, taking an interest in the mythology of immortality and the fearsome, seductive title character. Williams chuckles as she says, “I’d love to write [a horror novel], but it always comes out as a romance when I sit down.” 

A Love Song for Ricki Wilde is Williams’ fourth contemporary romance, and while it’s filled with her trademark balance of sexy love story and emotional moments both beautiful and tragic, there’s something new here: a full-bodied embrace of the fantastical and the serendipitous. Williams describes A Love Song for Ricki Wilde as a “modern fairytale,” one that adheres to Williams’ own preferences as a fantasy fan who focuses more on characters than rules; Ricki Wilde never gets bogged down into the hows and whys of world building. “I like ‘Game of Thrones’ because despite the dragons, it feels very much like The Godfather,” she explains. She notes one of her other major inspirations is Jude Deveraux’s iconic 1989 time-travel romance, A Knight in Shining Armor, where a heartbroken woman ends up centuries back in time. 

“Readers have to feel safe and that’s something I think about with every sentence.”

The titular character doesn’t fit in with the rest of her family, an Atlanta clan that runs a string of successful funeral homes. “Death bums Ricki out,” Williams says. She has no desire to step into the family business and feels universes away from her socialite siblings. So Ricki instead chooses to strike out on her own, move to Harlem and open up a floral boutique, adorably and aptly named Wilde Things. As Ricki puts down roots, a cast of fascinating characters orbits around her. There is Ms. Della, an elegant nonagenarian who offers Ricki a place to rent in her brownstone; Tuesday, a tenacious former child star who becomes Ricki’s new friend; and Ezra, Ricki’s love interest, a mysterious and sensitive man with a gift for music. When asked what would serve as the soundtrack for this book, Williams says with a smile, “A lot of Prince. Specifically ‘God,’ which is mainly an instrumental.” Coincidentally—or perhaps not—a framed image of Prince and Vanity’s 1983 Rolling Stone cover hangs on the wall above her head as we speak.

A Love Song for Ricki Wilde allowed Williams to explore and research not just pop music but also flowers and fragrance, voodoo practices and spirituality, many of which are interests the author already enjoyed. Ezra’s devotion to art and culture was inspired by Williams’ own love of music: She once owned a Billboard book on popular songs and would go page by page, learning everything she could about each hit and how it was made. Ricki’s tender care for her delicate plants and appreciation of their exotic, complex fragrances echoes Williams’ former career as a beauty editor and writer. “I remember discovering all these different kinds of flowers and their scents,” she says. “I had no idea night-blooming jasmine existed and what that smelled like.” However, her biggest research focus was 1920s Harlem.

Book jacket image for A Love Song for Ricki Wilde by Tia Williams

“I love the 1920s era: Hollywood, the Lost Generation in Paris, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes,” she says, and Williams includes flashbacks to this fascinating time in Harlem’s history alongside the present-day scenes. These additions create a rich sense of place, filled with Williams’ admiration for not only Harlem’s community and cultural renaissance, but also the ways art and activism provide solace and fuel resistance in the wake of devastating waves of racial violence. In Ricki Wilde, Williams writes, “What you haven’t reckoned with, you’re doomed to repeat. America was a ghost story with no end.” Shifting back and forth between the past and present, Williams shows the violence that’s been perpetuated against Black people and their communities. “American history and its causes do not exist in a vacuum and there’s a lot of generational trauma,” she says, but notes that even in the midst of hopelessness, there is love. It’s a dichotomy echoed in the book’s balance between life and death. Because Ricki’s been surrounded by death for most of her life, she seeks to offset it by tending to and nurturing her plants; Ms. Della possesses both the satisfaction of a life well-lived and the spirit to keep going.

That complexity, that sense of the fullness of life is also present in Ezra and Ricki’s relationship, which begins with a magnetic attraction but deepens as they, in Willliams’ words, get “lost in the soft, beautiful things”; their love grows through creating and experiencing art. Williams’ own work has already inspired adaptations, with The Perfect Find being made into a Netflix film last year starring Gabrielle Union and Keith Powers. Should Ricki Wilde get an opportunity to make the leap from book to screen, Williams thinks that KiKi Layne would make a good Ricki, especially given her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk. Actress Zazie Beetz is also a contender, as Williams says her more bohemian style would help bring Ricki to life. As for an on-screen Ezra, it’s no contest: The quiet, commanding presence of John David Washington is Williams’ pick. 

A Love Song for Ricki Wilde has more twists than a well-versed romance reader might expect. Both the shift in genre and the obstacles Ricki and Ezra face (which we refuse to spoil), require a lot of faith in Williams. Readers may at first think they’ve mistakenly picked up a historical fiction novel, not a contemporary romance, and they may wonder how Williams is going to pull off that coveted happily ever after. One thing, however, is for certain: ears will be shed, whether from Williams’ evocative, emotional writing or how Ricki and Ezra realize they’ve found the person who truly understands them, all the way down to their bones. Williams hopes people will trust her all the way to the end. “There’s a genre rule when it comes to romance. Of course, readers might not know how an author is going to get there, but there will be a HEA. Readers have to feel safe and that’s something I think about with every sentence,” she says. 

Read our starred review of ‘A Love Song for Ricki Wilde’ by Tia Williams.

There’s a lovely moment in the book where Tuesday is desperately trying to figure out who she is outside of her past life as an actor. She thinks writing a memoir might be her next career move, but it’s not quite igniting her passions. “Maybe you were a memoirist,” Ezra says. “But identity changes all the time, I’ve found. There’s a few more ‘yous’ you haven’t met yet.” Growth and change are central to Ricki Wilde, whether it’s the passing of time or the courage to pursue a dream. And in talking with Williams, it’s clear there are many “hers”—the Prince fan, the history buff, the beauty writer, the fantasy reader—that overlap and intersect, contributing to the fertile soil from which A Love Song for Ricki Wilde was able to blossom. But what about the other versions of Tia Williams that readers haven’t met yet? The heightened, magical world of Ricki Wilde is a brave and exciting step toward something new. Maybe, horror novelist is next. Or perhaps just, as she suggests, “damn good storyteller.”

Photo of Tia Williams by Francesco Ferendeles.

A Love Song for Ricki Wilde is a magical, surprising change of pace for the Seven Days in June author.
STARRED REVIEW

Top 10 books for February 2024

Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
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Book jacket image for A Love Song for Ricki Wilde by Tia Williams

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Recent Reviews

Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
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Canadian Boyfriend

Jenny Holiday’s Canadian Boyfriend, in which a dance teacher tends to her own emotional wounds while helping a young widower manage his new reality, is a true romance gem. When one of Aurora “Rory” Evans’ students, Olivia, returns to class after losing her mother, Rory is especially attentive to her and Mike Martin, Olivia’s pro hockey-playing dad. Rory and Mike connect immediately, and after Rory moves in to work as a nanny, they become intimate friends . . . and then lovers. Standing in the way of something more permanent is his grief, her people-pleasing ways—and the fact that when Rory was in high school, she told everyone that Mike was her boyfriend, seeing as he conveniently lived in Canada. Still, the bond between them won’t disappear, no matter what they tell themselves. Told in alternating first-person perspectives that are full of both revealing introspection and engaging banter, the heart-wrenching journey of Rory and Mike is tender, painful, joyful and, most of all, honest. This is everything a romance novel should be: a story of two people who learn from each other and are better together than apart.

Bride

A Were and a Vampyre wed to broker an alliance between their two species in Bride, an impressive change of pace for rom-com queen Ali Hazelwood. Reminding herself that their union will only last a year, Misery Lark steels herself to live with Alpha werewolf Lowe Moreland and his people—who view her with open hostility and dislike. But Lowe himself is harder to read. While he’s at first studiously detached, he begins to connect with Misery over his irrepressible little sister and then aids in Misery’s search for her missing best friend. Danger and power struggles continually surround the pair, but Lowe and Misery offer each other a respite from all that . . . and then more. Told primarily in Misery’s snarky and amusing first-person voice, there is plenty of action, stirring love scenes and intriguing world building that will leave readers wanting more. Snippets from Lowe’s point of view offer insight into the tender interior beneath his tough exterior. Paranormal romance fans will swoon over this one.

Wild Life

Two lonely people find their way to each other and new lives in Wild Life by Opal Wei. Both Zoey Fong and Davy Hsieh have big plans, and neither of them expects or welcomes an attraction that goes from a smolder to full-on flames in a heartbeat. But after former boy band star Davy accidentally absconds with a crucial slide from scientist Zoey’s workplace, she follows him to his private island. Things only get more madcap from there in this hilarious spin on Bringing Up Baby. Wei writes well-drawn, one-of-a-kind characters that will elicit readers’ sympathy and laughter as they spur each other to grow and change. Put together the aforementioned sexual chemistry, a big cat (heard but not seen) and geese (both seen and heard, eliciting an appropriate amount of terror, if one knows geese) and the result is a vibrant, fast-paced and highly entertaining romance.

Fangirl Down

Tessa Bailey sets fire to the pages in Fangirl Down. When bad-boy golfer Wells Whitaker quits the sport in frustration, he stands up Josephine Doyle, his biggest fan, who recently won a lunch with him. Wells’ conscience nags him about the missed meal and he seeks Josephine out, only to find her golf shop in shambles from a hurricane. Wells hits upon an idea to help that will also get him back on his game: She’ll be his new caddy, and they’ll split the prize money. It’s delicious to watch the grouchy golfer find he has a heart after all as he falls for the sunny Josephine. Bailey is known for her witty repartee and Wells and Josephine don’t miss a beat, in addition to having some off-the-charts love scenes. Josephine’s endeavors to manage her diabetes without insurance add some gravitas to this delightful, laugh-out-loud love story.

Sex, Lies and Sensibility

Nikki Payne offers an engrossing tale that is part family drama, part romance and all deep emotion in Sex, Lies and Sensibility. After their father dies, sisters Nora and Yanne Dash are left with nothing but a dilapidated inn on an island in Maine. To complicate matters, they must rehab the place into a successful business in a year or lose everything. Their first glimpse of the environs doesn’t improve their moods, especially given that they’re the only two Black people around. And while Abenaki eco-tour guide Ennis “Bear” Freeman may be gorgeous, Nora doesn’t need a man. She has good reason not to trust them and she also notices that Bear is reticent to talk about his past. But as their businesses begin to work together, the attraction can’t be denied. Nora and Bear’s past mistakes keep them wary, even as familial and outside forces work against their possible happiness together. Payne will grab readers by the heartstrings even as they fall in love with noble, ambitious Nora and Bear and the eclectic cast of this compassionate novel.

Ali Hazelwood goes paranormal, plus wonderful new takes on Sense and Sensibility and Bringing Up Baby.
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If you’re looking for the rom-commiest rom-com to ever rom or com, then look no further. Do you like stories with the rich and/or popular guy falling for the non-skinny, non-famous, non-glamorous girl? How about opposites attract? Maybe you want a fake relationship where a kiss just for show ends up feeling all too real? Or how about that perennial classic, There Was Only One Bed? You’ll find all of that and more in Charlotte Stein’s When Grumpy Met Sunshine, and if you think it sounds like too much, you’re wrong—it’s exactly enough, and a blast from start to finish.

The story opens with an epic meet-ugly. Alfie Harding meets Mabel Willicker when she’s introduced as the ghostwriter for his memoir. Alfie, a superstar Premier League footballer bearing an unmistakable resemblance to “Ted Lasso” ’s Roy Kent, is armored in black clothes, a bristling black beard, a 10-inch-deep frown and a voice that sounds “like very churlish gravel being shoved through an extremely sullen cement mixer.” Mabel, meanwhile, is in a pastel pink dress, with a plate of fairy cakes she baked for the occasion. Needless to say, the first meeting does not go well. But when they finally get to talking after another couple of hilariously disastrous encounters, they realize that they understand each other almost eerily well. As she uncovers unexpected bits and pieces about Alfie’s thoughts and feelings, Mabel also has the chance to unpack her own baggage. One wishes Stein allowed herself to linger longer on this part of the story, given how deeply enjoyable it is to watch her develop these characters and the increasingly rich connection between them. But the rom must com, so when the paparazzi spot Alfie with Mabel and the internet explodes with speculation, they soon end up in a fake relationship. Cue moments that are awkward to the max and growing sexual tension as all the pretending becomes less and less pretend. (FYI, this book definitely knows how to bring the heat.)

The similarities to “Ted Lasso” (not just Roy-core Alfie but also Mabel’s eventual editor, clearly modeled after the mustached coach himself) don’t stop with the characters. The warmth that drew people to that show—the joy of spending time with characters you genuinely like, who reveal themselves to be smarter and quirkier and more interesting than you expected—permeates the whole book. The tropes give the story its structure, but Stein adds heart and creativity that elevate it into something genuinely delightful. Mabel’s wry, funny voice is charming from the very start. (Seriously, just check out the book’s table of contents. The chapter titles alone will have you giggling.) And readers will absolutely adore Alfie who, behind his bristle, is as genuinely kind, genuinely chivalrous and genuinely, passionately devoted as any hero in recent memory. When Grumpy Met Sunshine is a classic feel-good story that’ll remind you why we all love rom-coms in the first place.

When Grumpy Met Sunshine has a very Roy Kent-esque hero, but the similarities to “Ted Lasso” don’t stop there: Warmth and joy permeate the entire book.
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The New York Times bestselling author of Seven Days of June, Tia Williams returns with A Love Song for Ricki Wilde, a modern fairy tale that follows a woman as she finally takes the leap to pursue her dreams and finds magic and wonder along the way.

The titular character hails from Atlanta, where she’s the odd daughter out among her socialite sisters. Ricki has no desire to partake in the family dynasty, a highly successful chain of funeral homes. Instead, she hopes to do some sort of work nurturing plants and flowers. In need of a change and longing to escape the shadow of her family’s accomplishments and well-known name, she moves to the famed neighborhood of Harlem in New York City. There, Ricki opens up a small floral boutique, aptly named Wilde Things, and rents a downstairs apartment in a brownstone owned by spirited nonagenarian Ms. Della. It doesn’t take long before Ricki begins to build a heartwarming and truly tender found family around herself, making friends with former child star Tuesday and taking in the advice of Ms. Della.

Tia Williams has the range: Why the author was drawn to a more magical tone for her latest romance.

And then she meets a mysterious, music-loving man named Ezra. They instantly form a connection, reveling in their shared appreciation of art and design. Ezra is sensitive and private, and he recognizes a fellow old soul in Ricki. But no romance is without obstacles, and there are such substantial hurdles to a satisfying happily ever after that readers may wonder whether Ricki and Ezra can clear them. The answer is unequivocally yes. Williams wouldn’t introduce a perfectly suited pair like this without giving them the fairy-tale ending they deserve. Ricky is particularly winning: earnest and genuine, opening her heart to others even though she’s never felt fully accepted by her family. Readers will fall in love with her as she easily agrees to Ms. Della’s offer to move in, sincerely chats with Tuesday and gently accepts Ezra’s complicated circumstances.

There’s a glamorous quality to Ricki Wilde that suits the headiness of its love story. Williams often switches between present-day and 1920s Harlem, giving readers a lively picture into the aesthetic glories of the Harlem Renaissance and its lasting contributions to media and culture. No matter the era, romance hangs in the air, much like Ricki’s beloved night-blooming jasmine. Williams’ previous novels have been expertly written, full of longing emotion, but there’s a surprising new ingredient this time: a sense of enchantment around every corner. Tissues are recommended, even if simply for the beauty of Williams’ writing. Once you’ve finished A Love Song for Ricki Wilde, you’ll undoubtedly be jealous of those who get to experience it for the first time.

Once you’ve finished A Love Song for Ricki Wilde, you’ll undoubtedly be jealous of those who get to experience it for the first time.
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STARRED REVIEW

February 6, 2024

3 fabulous fake-relationship romances

There’s nothing quite as delicious as a romance that isn’t real—until it is.

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Martha Waters’ fifth and final Regency Vows romance, To Woo and to Wed, ends the series on a high note. In this second-chance romance, Waters once again brings us into a world full of heat and charm, where love matches are plentiful and happily ever afters are guaranteed.

Life as a widow isn’t half-bad for Lady Sophie Bridewell. In fact, it’s quite freeing. She can spend her days in the library reading and eating French pastries to her heart’s content. Not too shabby! But when her sister Alexandra, who is also a widow, shares that she is being courted but doesn’t want to get married and leave Sophie alone, well, that just won’t do. A decade ago, she rejected her own true love, the Marquess of Weston, rather than jeopardize her sisters’ potential betrothals, and she refuses to let that sacrifice be for nothing. Instead, Sophie approaches West with a proposition: They’ll fake an engagement until Alexandra is married, then go their separate ways. This actually works out quite well for West, whose malevolent, meddling father has begun pushing him to marry. A fake engagement to the woman he loves—er, loved—should be easy. But as their “fake” feelings get more and more real, Sophie and West must work to leave the past behind and look towards the future.

In a Waters romance, friend groups are supportive and families are, for the most part, loving. (Parents even make sex jokes about their children’s love lives!) Regency novels are a very popular subgenre, especially after the success of “Bridgerton,” but Waters’ work is still exciting, fun and fresh. She twists the norms of the time to suit her own purposes and creates characters that feel shockingly contemporary. Sophie and West are some of her most endearing leads; you’d be hard pressed to find two people more worthy of love. The responsibility they believe they owe to their families and to each other constantly tugs them in different directions. Both are so deeply invested in being a noble martyr that, at a certain point, you just want to force them to sit down and talk instead of continuing to assume what’s best for each other. But isn’t that part of the fun and frustration (funstration? frun?) of reading romance? Watching two people dance around each other and feeling the tension build until they tear each other’s clothes off and bang until their problems are solved? Destiny is waiting for these two, if they can just get out of their own way.

To Woo and to Wed is a perfect ending to the Regency Vows series, solidifying its status as one of the most entertaining historical romance series on shelves today.

To Woo and to Wed is a perfect ending to the Regency Vows series, solidifying its status as one of the most entertaining historical romance series on shelves today.
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Megan Frampton has once again brought history to vivid, technicolor life with the third installment of her School for Scoundrels series, Her Adventures in Temptation. This bold foray into the world of Regency damsels and the scoundrels who drive them crazy is spirited and scandalous, and Frampton’s refreshing voice gives the popular fake-relationship trope new wings. 

Simeon Jones was raised by a single mother who taught him that art comes before everything . . . even love. It’s a hard mantra to shake, but he’s not a vain, cruel player. Rather, Simeon is the sensitive hunk of his group of friends, the Bastard Five. Despite the white lies and tiny manipulations he employs to navigate high society as an illegitimate artist, he’s earnest and sweet under it all.

He’s drawn to Lady Myrtle Allen, a well-to-do yet unconventional woman. Confident, independent and intelligent with a head for numbers, Myrtle enjoys eating cake and helping other women manage their finances, and she intends to make her way to London to establish a home away from her interfering, controlling family. But as upper-class Regency women cannot travel alone, Myrtle navigates her first business negotiation, paying Simeon to journey with her while posing as her husband. 

Many Regency novels are super chatty, full of double-entendre and doublespeak. Frampton’s style follows suit, but her writing is as smart as her characters. Simeon and Myrtle don’t lob banter back and forth; rather, they volley information at each other with precision and speed. The characters’ different communication styles perfectly fill in the blanks for their other half: Myrtle is frank and practical, telling the truth when nobody else will; Simeon protects his soft heart with studied, elegant courtesy.

As Simeon and Myrtle fall in love, they realize that they can not only have love and their careers, but also the joy of respecting and elevating their partner’s work. It’s so easy to pull for them both, because they so clearly pull for each other.

Megan Frampton’s refreshing voice gives the fake-engagement trope new wings in Her Adventures in Temptation.

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There’s nothing quite as delicious as a romance that isn’t real—until it is. 
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In Midnight Ruin, Katee Robert takes readers back to the city of Olympus with a story of redemption and possibility between lovers old and new.

Eurydice Dimitriou has a reputation—no, not that kind. She is the innocent Dimitriou sister. The nice one. The gentle one. But after Orpheus Makos very publicly shatters her heart, she is ready to step out of the shadows and find her own way in Olympus. Who better to guide her on this new path than Charon Ariti, Hades’ right-hand man? Charon has given everything to ensure the safety of Hades’ territory, but he’s ready to find someone he can call his own, and he has a soft spot for the youngest Dimitriou. 

But things are never that simple, especially in Olympus. Charon and Eurydice should be the perfect pair, but Eurydice can’t quite forget her first love, especially since Orpheus is committed to winning her back. As things begin to heat up among the trio, the city of Olympus continues to unravel as outside forces threaten its safety.  

Robert is known for pushing the envelope, especially when it comes to exploring kink and polyamorous partnerships. But she does so deftly and with care, never losing her sense of fun, and that is why readers keep coming back. A Robert romance is full throttle, fast paced and consistently jaw-dropping. I certainly didn’t see puppy play on my 2024 romance bingo card, but here we are. (Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks!)  

For fans of the series, Midnight Ruin is both an exciting continuation of the larger narrative and a necessary breather. After a string of enemies-to-lovers romances, it feels good to spend time with this gentler trio. As the political unrest in Olympus ramps up, their quiet love story is a small respite amid the chaos. Each partner plays an important role in the dynamic: Orpheus’ renewed sense of loyalty, Charon’s gentle guidance, Eurydice’s kind but determined heart. If you were to take one out of the equation, the relationship would no longer work. It’s impossible not to hope for this trio to secure their love.

Dangerous and thrilling, Midnight Ruin is a classic Katee Robert romance. You never quite know where you are going, but you’ll gleefully enjoy the ride all the same.

Dangerous and thrilling, Midnight Ruin showcases Katee Robert’s ability to explore kink and polyamorous partnerships deftly and with care.
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★ An Inconvenient Earl

Julia London delivers a delightful heroine and a happy ending that at first appears impossible in An Inconvenient Earl. To her everlasting relief, Emma Clark’s cruel earl of a husband left her behind in England when he embarked on an expedition to Africa. After many months, a stranger arrives with the bad tidings that her husband has died, meaning Emma will be left without a home or funds—unless she doesn’t tell anyone the news. That tangled web is made even stickier when the very attractive Luka Olivien, Earl of Marlaine, arrives to return Emma’s husband’s pocket watch. He knows that she’s a widow but she . . . doesn’t? Luka’s confused by her increasingly clear attempts to dodge what he knows to be true, but he also can’t resist the charming and now smitten Emma. Characters from previous books make welcome appearances in this fourth entry in London’s Royal Match series, and while this Victorian romance seems like a romp, there is wrenching emotion and a beating heart of gold underneath. 

The Night Island

Jayne Ann Krentz’s Lost Night Files series follows a trio of women who team up to determine the cause of their new psychic abilities. In the latest spooky entry, The Night Island, one of the trio, podcaster Talia March, is trying to figure out what happened to Phoebe, a fan who had some vital information but has recently disappeared. Professor Luke Rand is also on Phoebe’s trail, and clues lead him and Talia to Night Island, where an exclusive, unplugged retreat is about to begin. The pair soon discover that they’re in danger from someone at the retreat and maybe from the island itself, which is inhabited by creepy and threatening vegetation. The Pacific Northwest setting enhances this shivery, senses-tickling read. As usual, Krentz’s name on the cover guarantees imaginative, immersive entertainment.

Red String Theory

A scientist and an artist test their opposite philosophies of life and love in Red String Theory by Lauren Kung Jessen. Rooney Gao is a struggling, striving artist in New York City. Jack Liu is a NASA engineer in Los Angeles. They have one night of near-magical connection, but then their numbers exchange goes awry. Fast forward a few months and Rooney is hired by NASA to be Artist-in-Residence with Jack as her liaison. Their attraction blossoms again, but logical Jack can’t swallow Rooney’s belief in the Chinese legend that a red string of fate connects everyone to their true love. The pair contemplate science, art, fate, choice and belief as they fall in love. Jessen writes such sympathetic, well-rounded characters that even cynics may believe in soulmates after reading this brainy, kisses-only love story.

Plus, a delightful Victorian romp and a brainy contemporary love story charm our romance columnist.
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In Lynn Steger Strong’s stirring Flight, siblings Kate, Henry and Martin struggle to make it through the holidays after the death of their mother. Assembling at Henry’s home with their respective families for Christmas, they try to be cheerful while sorting out big issues like whether to keep their mother’s house. When the daughter of a friend disappears, the siblings offer support, and the crisis transforms each of them. Strong’s powerful novel features a range of discussion topics, including grief, inheritance and the bonds of family.

Set on the border between Texas and Mexico, Everyone Knows You Go Home by Natalia Sylvester chronicles the marriage of Isabel and Martin. Martin’s late father, Omar, deserted the family when Martin was a boy. But every fall, on the Day of the Dead, Omar’s ghost visits Isabel and begs her to convince Martin and the rest of the family to forgive him. As the novel unfolds, Isabel learns more about Omar and his past, and her discoveries threaten her happiness. Themes like loyalty, memory and the Mexican American immigrant experience will spark spirited dialogue among readers.

In Jean Meltzer’s The Matzah Ball, Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt, successful writer of Christmas romances (an occupation she conceals from her Jewish family), is asked to pen a love story set during Hanukkah—an assignment that proves daunting. Rachel finds Hanukkah lackluster compared to Christmas, and she hits a wall while dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome. In need of motivation, she helps organize a Hanukkah celebration called the Matzah Ball, reconnecting with an old flame along the way. Meltzer mixes humor with romance to concoct a delightful holiday frolic.

December takes an unexpected turn for the Birch clan in Francesca Hornak’s Seven Days of Us. Emma and Andrew Birch look forward to spending Christmas at Weyfield Hall, their country house, but when their daughter Olivia, who’s a doctor, returns from Liberia where she was exposed to a dangerous virus, the family is forced to quarantine for a week. Despite rising tensions and the reveal of a huge family secret, the Birches become closer than ever during their Yuletide lockdown. Poignant yet festive, Hornak’s novel is a treat.

There’s nothing more fun than gossiping about fictional characters with your book club.
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The Takedown

Carlie Walker’s The Takedown is an engaging story filled with danger, drama and introspection—and a Christmas romance you won’t want to miss. When CIA agent Sydney Swift learns her sister plans to marry crime lord Johnny Jones, she instantly regrets the familial distance she’s encouraged due to her dangerous job and agrees to help the FBI take Johnny down. At Grandma Ruby’s for Christmas, Sydney must keep her mission a secret even as she’s sharing quarters with not only Johnny, but also his best man and head of security, the far too attractive Nick Fraser. Celebrating the season while sussing out the Jones clan’s nefarious next moves isn’t easy, and Sydney does some soul-searching about her career while trying not to fall for Nick, who must be as bad as Johnny—right? This untraditional Christmas tale is as fun as can be and will have readers whipping through the pages.

Three Holidays and a Wedding

Bad luck turns to good fortune in Three Holidays and a Wedding by Uzma Jalaluddin and Marissa Stapley. Maryam Aziz is on her way to her sister’s wedding, and Anna Gibson is about to meet her boyfriend’s parents. But both are stranded along with their entire flight after a blizzard traps them in the adorable and fantastical town of Snow Falls, Ontario, where the sequel to a beloved Christmas movie also happens to be filming. As Christmas, Hanukkah and Eid al-Fitr approach (the novel is set in 2000, when all three celebrations fell within days of one another), Anna must deal with the displeasure of her boyfriend and her attraction to the movie’s leading man, while Maryam manages her extended family and her childhood crush, Saif. Jalaluddin and Stapley expertly braid the three faiths together and each character sparkles in their own way. The holiday(s) spirit is strong in this one!

Faking Christmas

For pure festive rom-com fun, look no further than Faking Christmas by Kerry Winfrey. Laurel Grant thinks of herself as the “other twin,” the one who constantly screws up, while her identical sister Holly lives on a farm with her husband and kids, raises goats and cooks like a dream. Laurel is the social media manager for a magazine promoting the charms of Ohio, and may have pretended her sister’s life was her own to get the job. But then her boss invites himself to a holiday meal. Luckily, Holly doesn’t mind letting Laurel step into her place . . . with the exception of playing wife to her husband. There’s another man for that role: Laurel’s nemesis, grouchy and fun-averse Max Beckett. Of course, there’s a blizzard and romantic sparks and misunderstandings, as well as movie marathons and dance parties. Max learns to smile on occasion and Laurel finds out she’s not such a screw-up after all. This is hot chocolate in book form—warm and sweet.

A Holly Jolly Ever After

An unlikely pairing enjoys a scorching Christmas romance in A Holly Jolly Ever After by Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone. After years in good-girl roles followed by a shocking divorce, actor Winnie Baker is ready to end her people-pleaser ways and take charge of her life. First up is starring in a Christmas soft-core porn film alongside ex-boy band member, Kallum Lieberman (who was “the funny one”). Though she’s been in the entertainment business since childhood, the challenge of acting sexy, especially pretending to enjoy sex on screen, is such a hurdle that Winnie confides in Kallum—and he’s eager to help. He’s had a crush on her since her early TV days, and awakening her to carnal pleasures is a joy that threatens to turn into love. But their idyll in Christmas Notch, Vermont, the charming backdrop for their movie, is supposed to be no-strings. The love scenes smoke, the characters and their sidekicks are funny and sweet, and readers will root for Winnie to get all she deserves.

Wreck the Halls

In Tessa Bailey’s Wreck the Halls, the progeny of an infamous female rock duo get involved in a band reunion—and with each other. The Steel Birds broke up before their respective kids, Beat and Melody, were born. But their legend lives on, and since Beat’s in a financial bind, he tries to get the women back on stage. Though Melody only met him once when she was a teenager, she feels so connected to Beat all these years later that she jumps on board with his idea. The holiday reunion setup and The Steel Birds are interesting, but it’s Beat and Melody’s intense bond that drives the story and gives it oomph. Bailey masterfully sells the sublime connection between the two characters, whether in conversation or more carnal situations. It’s delicious and delightful, the stuff of pure fairy tale romance, and readers won’t want it to end.

The annual avalanche of festive love stories is upon us—here are the books you should put on your list.
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For the first time in four years, Levi Matthews is returning to the winter wonderland that is Carrigan’s, the inn and Christmas tree farm where he grew up. The oldest child of the inn’s handyman and cook, Levi’s childhood was spent alongside Carrigan’s heir apparent, Hannah Rosenstein. Hannah visited her great-aunt’s inn as often as possible, much to the bemusement of her globe-trotting documentary filmmaker parents. Hannah’s only dream was to permanently live in the place she loved best, stable and settled with Levi, the person she loved most. But one person’s safe haven is another person’s stifling prison: The pansexual Levi was bullied as a child for all the ways he diverged from the small-town norm, whether it was his love of cooking or flamboyant appearance. Hence a painful, messy break ensued when Levi left to find himself and Hannah stayed behind. As For Never & Always begins, Levi, now a successful celebrity chef, returns home for Passover, knowing that he doesn’t want to contemplate a future without Hannah. But before they can find happiness, they’ll have to grapple not just with baggage from the past but also with an age-old question: A bird may love a fish, but where would they build their home?

Anyone familiar with the vibrant cast of characters at Carrigan’s, who were introduced in author Helena Greer’s debut, Season of Love, will know to expect plenty of humor and warmth baked into powerfully sweet relationships. In addition to its central romance, For Never & Always tells many love stories about friendship and family—by choice as well as by birth—all flawlessly illustrated in small, telling gestures. Even more to its credit, it doesn’t shy away from the things that love can’t fix. When Hannah and Levi were younger, they would default to sex to paper over the cracks in their relationship, whether it was Hannah’s anxiety or Levi’s increasing desire to leave Carrigan’s. Growing up means admitting that they need to address their problems openly, talk about what they’re feeling and really listen to each other.

For Never & Always is a wonderful example of what readers love about second-chance romances: a couple that is now ready for happily ever after in a way that they weren’t before. A forever love takes time, commitment and a level of maturity that you may not have when that first rush of love sweeps you away. The fact that Levi and Hannah are willing to wait and work for it is exactly what makes their happy ending feel so joyful and blessed.

With its hard-won happy ending, For Never & Always is a wonderful example of why readers love second-chance romances.
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Jo Segura’s debut, Raiders of the Lost Heart, harkens back to foundational adventure films like Romancing the Stone and The Mummy as well as the action-packed, globe-trotting romance novels of the ’80s and ’90s. Archaeologist Dr. Socorro “Corrie” Mejia travels to Mexico in hope of unearthing the remains of her ancient Aztec ancestor during a once-in-a-lifetime archaeology dig. Unfortunately, the dig in question is being led by Corrie’s academic rival and fellow archaeologist, Dr. Ford Matthews. Both need this dig to succeed for personal and professional reasons, but they’ll have to battle the harsh jungle environment and their own lingering feelings first. 

A tenacious heroine is a must for any good adventure rom-com, and Corrie fits the bill and then some. She’s fiery, nerdy and a little quirky, with a knack for getting into the most chaotic of situations. Corrie’s career advancement has often been hampered by a white man taking all the glory, and she’s not about to let that happen again. While Ford may be an intelligent archaeologist, Corrie feels he relies too much on his own charisma and avoids getting his hands dirty. Corrie, however, craves adventure and being in the field, and is most at home trudging through the elements instead of sitting behind a desk. 

Ford needs this dig to work out, as the great press would ensure more jobs to help him pay for his mother’s medical treatment. But he also knows the privilege he wields and has begun to reckon with that. He doesn’t quite know what to do with his complicated emotions towards Corrie—other than physically surrender to them and sort it all out later. If the tension of an archaeological deadline and all the different ways the jungle can kill weren’t enough to keep the momentum at a steady pace, Ford is also doing his best to hide a sizable secret, one that could jeopardize his professional integrity and whatever goodwill he is slowly winning from Corrie. 

Both the romance and action are slow burns, with Segura taking her time to develop both before a dramatic third act. Someone in the camp is sabotaging the dig and Corrie and Ford need to find out why, but they’re distracted by their quick banter and the looming sexual tension of having to share a tent. While slightly disjointed at times, this is a fun romance that clearly appreciates its adventure romance predecessors. It’s a hopeful sign of good things to come, both by Segura and possibly the genre as a whole: There’s been a dearth of adventure romance novels for far too long, and Raiders of the Lost Heart is a thrilling addition to the canon that will hopefully kick off a new wave of the subgenre.

An adventure romance a la Romancing the Stone and The Lost City, Raiders of the Lost Heart will hopefully kick off a new wave of the subgenre.

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