A natural fit

Julie Murphy dishes about the liberating experience of writing grown-up characters and why her version of the wicked stepmother is more complicated than conniving.

Julie Murphy dishes about the liberating experience of writing grown-up characters and why her version of the wicked stepmother is more complicated than conniving.

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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.

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.

Fans of Sally MacKenzie’s Widow’s Brew series have been waiting for this moment. Jo, the widowed Lady Havenridge, has appeared in the series' previous two books as a woman who seemed to have it all figured out. The founder and leader of the Benevolent Home for the Maintenance and Support of Spinsters, Widows, and Abandoned Women and their Unfortunate Children, she has established not only a sanctuary for women and girls with nowhere else to go, but also a thriving business as the women operate their own brewery. She has work, purpose, a home and a community, but now it’s finally time for her to find love. And perhaps it’s a testament to how rare and special her situation is that love and matrimony—the longed-for prize of every young miss in Regency society—holds little appeal for her. She doesn’t actually say that she needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, but the implication is there.

However, in Cheers to the Duke, the right man is quite forcefully ushered in. Edward, the Duke of Grainger, is a solicitor from an obscure branch of the family tree who unexpectedly inherited the title (think Matthew Crawley from "Downton Abbey"). The search for a bride, someone to step into the shoes of his dearly loved first wife as Edward’s partner and mother to his young, sensitive son, has not gone well. Thrust into society’s so-called graces, he is fawned over by empty-headed debutantes with hungry eyes on his title even as they turn up their noses at his common origins. But then he’s brought together with Jo at the christening of Viscount Hurley, their mutual godchild. And by “brought together,” I mean “all but locked into a closet together by their friends who’ve decided they’re perfect for each other.” Edward is quick to agree that Jo is just what he needs—in his home, his heart and his bed. (His son, Thomas, is instantly on board as well, and in one of the sweeter moments in the story, actually proposes that Jo become his mother even before Jo and Edward officially meet.) Jo, on the other hand, is harder to convince.

In a genre as well-trod as Regency romance, there's much pleasure to be found in stories that subvert expectations, and this story (this series!) definitely accomplishes that. Rather than a society-defying rake who is tamed by love, MacKenzie features capable heroines who defy social norms and require heavy persuasion before they’ll give in to the virtues of wedded life and love. There’s no villain in the story, no rigidly disapproving family member interfering with the course of true love, no moustache-twirling scoundrel attempting to compromise or disgrace the heroine. The only roughness in the course of true love comes from the fact that Jo genuinely needs convincing that marriage is something she’d ever want, even with the perfect man. Her independence is both admirable and refreshing. The response of the other characters to that independence is . . . a bit less endearing. Like Bridget Jones, I’m not often a fan of “smug marrieds” who are convinced that no one can be both happy and single, and the other guests at the christening celebration lean a little far into that mindset. There could have been a bit less well-intentioned matchmaking, and a bit more genuine respect for Jo’s choices (there were a few too many conversations where she got steamrolled).

Still, the energy of the story is infectious, evoking the feeling of a family reunion where everyone’s truly glad to see one another. For those hoping for a happy conclusion to these characters and their adventures in brewing, the final Widow's Brew novel delivers love, laughter and libations.

Fans of Sally MacKenzie’s The Widow’s Brew series have been waiting for Jo, Lady Havenridge, to get her happily ever after, and Cheers to the Duke does not disappoint.

In Joanna Shupe’s latest romance novel, A Scandalous Deal, aspiring architect Eva Hyde has found the perfect project to establish her reputation—a glittering, luxurious hotel in New York City. But her attraction to her employer, powerful businessman Phillip Mansfield, threatens to expose her identity and ruin her carefully laid plans. Shupe’s the Four Hundred series are some of the best new books set in the Gilded Age, and follow English noblewomen as they discover the intoxicating freedom and powerful men of turn-of-the-century America.

The Gilded Age might not be as popular a time period as the Regency and Victorian eras in historical romance, but it’s been a steady subgenre for years, offering readers a less restrictive, even more ridiculously opulent setting than the ballrooms of English high society. In this guest post, Shupe told us which five books she recommends for fans of the period.


Opulence. Innovation. Corruption. America’s Gilded Age had all this and much more. I have always been fascinated by this era because it is fraught with tension and conflict—perfect for romance stories! Here are five of my favorite novels set in Gilded Age New York.

 

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

What happens when you fall in love with a scandalous divorcée when duty and conformity are your entire world? This is the question Newland Archer must face when he meets the beautiful Countess Olenska in old New York. Wharton’s writing is divine and a true window into the high society of Mrs. Astor’s time. (When you are done with the book, go watch the Daniel Day-Lewis movie adaptation. That carriage scene . . . swoon!)

 

Lions and Lace by Meagan McKinney

When her wealthy family is ruined, Alana Van Alan is left on the doorstep of the man responsible, ruthless financier Trevor Sheridan, also known as the Predator. Sheridan’s Irish ancestry makes him think a Knickerbocker princess like Alana could never truly love him. The story gives some insight into the prejudices of the time, and the high society world building is outstanding. Warning, this is an old-school romance—but it’s one of my desert island keepers.

 

Deadly Vows by Brenda Joyce

Francesca Cahill is an amateur sleuth and socialite in Old New York and she’s about to marry Calder Hart—or is she? When she gets caught up in the hunt to find a scandalous painting, her future and her relationship are suddenly threatened. This is the final book in Joyce’s Deadly mystery series. While this one was my favorite, do yourself a favor and start at the beginning of the series (Deadly Love) because each book is fantastic.

 

Destiny’s Captive by Beverly Jenkins

Pilar Banderas is a Cuban rebel and she needs to steal a ship. Unfortunately for Noah Yates, his ship is the one she chooses. When he wakes up from being kidnapped, he’s tied to a bed (yes!), his ship is already at sea and he vows revenge on the pirate. This story is pure delicious fun from start to finish, with a feisty heroine and unique locations like Cuba, Florida and California. When Noah called Pilar “mi pequeña pirata,” I dropped dead from the feels. This book is a must-read for anyone who loves a sword-wielding heroine.

 

Duchess by Design by Maya Rodale

A desperate duke comes to Gilded Age New York to marry an American heiress and save his family. Instead, he falls for a spunky-but-definitely-poor seamstress. This is the first in Rodale’s Gilded Age Girls Club series and it isn’t available until October 23, but I was lucky enough to read an early copy. The story is delightful, with plenty of Rodale’s signature witty dialogue and clever details. I devoured this American twist on the familiar duke trope.

Author Joanna Shupe recommends five romances set in turn-of-the-century America.

As a lifelong period drama devotee, historical romance is probably my favorite subgenre in all of Romancelandia. But as a history nerd, I’ve never quite understood why the Regency and Victorian eras are so very, very dominant. Don’t get me wrong—I will never say no to a good bustle, and I love Austen-esque tales as much as the next romance reader. But why isn’t there an entire genre of fast-paced, witty Roaring ’20s romances? Or love affairs within the court intrigue of Tudor England? Or, you know, more romances set anywhere other than England or America? The following list is unfortunately still Anglocentric, much like the romance genre itself, but these authors offer a place to start for those looking to move beyond the Regency or Victorian romance.


Medieval

After the Regency and Victorian periods, the medieval era is probably the third most common setting in historical romance. In Ye Olde Decades Past of romance, it was a super popular period but is now mainly the territory of dashing Highlanders. Which is not at all a bad thing!

Isabel Cooper
Medieval, but make it paranormal: The dashing Scottish hero of Highland Dragon Warrior is, you guessed it, a dragon shape-shifter. And if that wasn’t enough, his love interest is a Jewish alchemist. If you get hooked, Cooper also has a previous series starring the same family, centuries later.

Julie Garwood
She’s currently writing romantic suspense, but longtime romance fave Garwood has an extensive backlist of acclaimed medieval romances. Start with the Highlands’ Lairds or Lairds’ Fiancées series.

Elizabeth Kingston
If you’re looking for a realistic depiction of the period in both its cultural sophistication and near-constant violence, let me introduce you to the wonderful Elizabeth Kingston. Her deeply romantic Welsh Blades series takes place during the chaotic English conquest of Wales, and both books have a unique, utterly ferocious heroine.

Mary Wine
Wine’s book list is almost entirely medieval and early Renaissance, and she specializes in strong-willed female characters and lushly detailed depictions of Scotland and England.

Jeannie Lin
The Tang Dynasty was one of the golden ages of imperial China, and a particularly good example of how most of the world was doing just fine during what we Westerners have self-centeredly called “the Dark Ages.” Start with Butterfly Swords, where sword-wielding Princess Ai Li flees her upcoming wedding and enlists a handsome, mysterious warrior to keep her safe.

 

 

 


Georgian

No less an authority than Terry Dresbach, the costume designer for “Outlander,” has said that the 18th century, known as the Georgian period in England, was one of the sexiest ever periods of fashion. This era comes right before the Regency but was earthier, more sex-positive and far less constrained by propriety. Which to me sounds like a recipe for a pretty great time.

Eloisa James
After writing many beloved regencies, James has moved back a few decades to give us some arch, intelligent Georgian love stories. I’m partial to her current series, the Wildes of Lindow Castle, which works in the burgeoning gossip press of the era in hilarious ways, but readers also love her Desperate Duchesses books.

Elizabeth Hoyt
Like Mary Wine and the medieval period, Hoyt has staked out a claim for herself as the happy queen of her particular era. Check out her Maiden Lane or Legend of the Four Soldiers series for a grittier take on Georgian England, or go to the Princes books for some upper-class romance.


The Gilded Age/Edwardian Era

As any reader of Edith Wharton knows, the Gilded Age is a particularly fantastic setting for romance (even if it tends to end in gut-wrenching heartbreak—I still haven’t forgiven Edith for what The House of Mirth did to me). The extraordinary wealth accumulated by the American upper class in this period put much of the European aristocracy to shame, and the Yanks compensated for their lack of noble titles by adhering to hilariously byzantine rules of social engagement. In other words, everyone was very sexually repressed and looked super hot all the time.

Joanna Shupe
Shupe has established herself as a go-to author for smart, well-researched historicals, and she does particularly great work in this era. Her superfun Knickerbocker series put her on the map, but I’d recommend starting with A Daring Arrangement, which follows an English noblewoman as she embraces the hustle and freedom of NYC and hooks up with a delicious, dashing financier.

Elizabeth Camden
Inspirational romance is often a good place to go for great work set in less popular eras, and Camden’s Empire State series is perhaps the best example of this. Camden’s romances are witty, warm and exhaustively researched. She has a particular knack for writing about the scientific advances of the era, so any readers looking for STEM heroes and heroines will be very happy.

Laura Lee Guhrke
Guhrke has series in all sorts of eras, but her Abandoned at the Altar books take place in Edwardian England. All three romances have delightfully independent ladies, all of them center around broken engagements, and characters can actually drive themselves around in cars rather than carriages! (You’ve heard of carriage love scenes—I raise you old-timey automobile love scenes.)

 

 


20th Century

You’d think with the popularity of “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey” and every other 20th-century period drama on television, there’d be a corresponding boom of romances. Alas, no. But there are a few shining stars out there, daring to write historical romances in eras sans corsets.

Amanda Quick
The alter ego of romantic suspense icon Jayne Ann Krentz has lately started writing romances that I swear were tailor-made for yours truly—sexy mysteries set in Hollywood circa 1930. It’s like “Poirot” and the second season of “Agent Carter” had a baby and wow am I sorry for that image. So sorry. Anyway, these books are great—start with The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Roseanna M. White
Another hidden gem of inspirational romance, the Shadows Over England series takes place during the lead-up to the Blitz. As you might expect, things are very tense, very dramatic and very British. There are spy games and refugee musicians and clockmakers and reformed criminals aplenty, making these books excellent reads to curl up with on a chilly day.

Alyssa Cole
The wonderful Cole has a fantastic backlist of historical novels and novellas written both before and after she became a total superstar with An Extraordinary Union (which is a great pick for a different historical, given its Civil War setting, but also technically still in the Victorian era). Let Us Dream is set in 1917 Harlem, and follows a romance between a cabaret owner and her chef. And Let It Shine stars a boxer and a civil rights activist who fall in love in 1961.

As a history nerd, I’ve never quite understood why the Regency and Victorian eras are so very, very dominant in romance. The following list is unfortunately still Anglocentric, much like the romance genre itself, but these authors offer a place to start for those looking to move beyond the Regency or Victorian romance.

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