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Entertainment Weekly

Book Reviews

Hot Stuff: December romance novels end the year with fireworks-worthy sparks

Gallery Books ; Avon; NYLA

Posted on

From diverting historical escapes to a contemporary romp through a beauty pageant in a contemporary LGBTQ novella, here are some of our favorite choices for December romance reads — perfect ways to ring in the New Year.

NYLA

The Earl I Ruined
By Scarlett Peckham
Review: Peckham continues her irresistible, wildly sex-positive The Secrets of Charlotte Street series with The Earl I Ruined. When Lady Constance Stonewell accidentally ruins the Earl of Apthorp’s reputation with a bit of mean-spirited gossip, she offers up a plot to save him – a fake engagement. But Constance discovers the Earl is not quite as boring as she once thought, particularly because he’s been nursing amorous feelings for her for nearly a decade. Peckham writes with a swirling, intoxicating combination of wit, humor, and dazzling word-play – a literary cocktail nearly as heady as the confectionary pink gowns and stunning silver tresses of her heroine. Constance is a heroine for anyone who has ever found their impetuousness, their fickle nature, or the way they wield charm and self-deprecation as a weapon used to label them “unlikable.” She’s deliciously complex, utterly engrossing, and a study in contradictions in the way the best characters always are – a fact only made better by the notion that female characters are so rarely permitted to be thus, even in the romance genre. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a heroine who makes a habit of dropping one-liners like, “Being improper is my calling,” while still possessing a host of relatable vulnerabilities and unhealed wounds that makes her both entirely relatable and dizzyingly engrossing? Apthrop is a potent match, a man whose secret past and mask of dull propriety sizzles at a slow burn in contrast to Constance’s raging firework of brilliance – a perfect combination of fire and ice with so much more under the surface. Peckham is an assured, talented writer, who somehow manages to write with a style that feels both plucked from the periodicals of the 18th century and hilariously, outrageously modern. She walks a fine balancing act through moments of singeing desire, heart-achingly tender romance, uproariously funny turns-of-events, and desperately tragic realities of the costs of loneliness, reputation, and more. With her ability to tread the line between the most diverting of historical circumstances and a progressive level of sex positivity that makes me want to sing her praises from the rooftops, Peckham proves herself one of the most exciting romance authors on the rise. The Earl I Ruined is all the gusto of fizzy champagne and New Year’s fireworks one could ever need to end the year on a high note.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A

Avon

A Duke Changes Everything
By Christy Carlyle
Review: If you’re looking for a brooding hero to inject some heat into your winter, look no further than Nicholas Lyon of A Duke Changes Everything. With a huge scar on his face and a father exceedingly cruel even by romance novel standards, Nick has enough darkness in his past to tempt the devil – until he meets Mina Thorne, the young woman who has filled the role of steward of the Enderley Estate he’s inherited. Mina is headstrong, impertinent, and absolutely irresistible to the enigmatic duke, who can’t help but fall for her as she strives to convince him the estate is something worth saving. Carlyle writes with a straightforward hand, pitching her characters headlong into their attraction, while shading in with ample angst. It’s slightly frustrating how closely Mina and Nick’s voices can sometimes read on the page, and the book would certainly benefit from stronger points of view on both their parts. Yet, Carlyle spins an engrossing Victorian romance by giving her protagonists such deep wounds to overcome. It’s refreshing that Mina is more worldly than your average romance heroine, rather than a doe-eyed spinster, while Nick’s difficulties with letting go of his past feel particularly justified given the magnitude of what he suffered. Indeed, he’s so brooding, so tortured, he could give Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester a run for his money (though here he’s haunted by a stone tower on his estate, not things that go bump in the attic). With this story of two damaged people helping each other find their way back to the light, Carlyle offers readers a charming diversion that holds extra weight thanks to her characters’ tragic pasts.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B

Gallery Books

The Accidental Beauty Queen
By Teri Wilson
Review: Taking a leaf out the always-excellent Miss Congeniality playbook, Teri Wilson delivers a playful, romantic romp through this beauty pageant- (sorry, scholarship competition-) set novel. Despite being identical twins, Charlotte and Ginny Gorman are nothing alike. Charlotte is a bookish librarian, who cares more for Harry Potter than a lip-kit, while Ginny is a beauty pageant-obsessed, Instagram-famous stunner. When Ginny suffers a severe allergic reaction, she convinces Charlotte to take her place and impersonate in her in a Miss America-esque competition. There’s only one hiccup – one of the pageant judges is the infuriatingly handsome, Mr. Darcy stand-in Charlotte has been flirting with after a chance meeting at the hotel. Wilson writes with effortless charm that makes the book a cheerful, brisk read. She expertly calibrates Charlotte’s disdain for beauty pageants, crafting a character that many of her bookish readers will undoubtedly relate to, while still leaving space to reveal the surprising depths and camaraderie of pageant contestants. The novel is a love story, but one that spends more time on messages of self-love and sisterhood than it does on heterosexual romance. It’s this which truly makes the novel sing – as Charlotte realizes how much she’s underestimated her sister and the challenges of pageant life. As Charlotte comes to realize the sacrifices and openheartedness it requires to become a good sister and friend, Wilson crafts an indelible portrait of women raising up other women – rather than resorting to backstage bitchery or other stereotypes one might expect from a pageant-based story. When one feels like the ugly duckling, it’s easy to dismiss others as shallow or silly, but Wilson turns the tables and paints a surprisingly moving tale of finding both inner and outer beauty in the most unexpected places. The romance between Charlotte (disguised as Ginny) and pageant judge Gray Beckham is just an added cherry on top of this confectionary delight – the perfect hint of spice in an otherwise deliciously sweet tale of sisterhood in all its myriad forms. With its lovely blend of wit, romance, and heartfelt emotion, The Accidental Beauty Queen wins the crown.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A-

Avon

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy
By Alyssa Cole
Review: Cole continues her sparkling Reluctant Royals series with this novella, which tells the unexpected love story of A Princess in Theory’s Prince Thabiso’s assistant Likotsi. While Thabiso was busy faking his identity and wooing Naledi, it turns out Likotsi was embarking on a romance of her own, swiping right on pin-up fashionista and jewelry maker Fabiola. The relationship came to an abrupt end when Fab ghosted Likotsi, but when the two have a chance meeting on a subway car months later, they can’t deny their lingering feelings. With a sparse number of pages, Cole has crafted yet another love story you can’t wait to dive into headfirst. She hits on contemporary issues ranging from the heartbreak of being ghosted to far more serious questions of immigration law, tackling all of it with the empathy and pragmatism that has become a hallmark of her work. Simply by telling inclusive stories that matter to her, Cole is breaking down barriers in mainstream romance publishing – and Once Ghosted, Twice Shy is no exception with its LGBTQ romance between two black women, one bisexual, the other visibly masc as she’s described on the pages and depicted on the cover. It’s still dismayingly rare to see black LGBTQ women granted happily-ever-afters in the pages of romance (at least in books from major publishing houses), and Cole offers up a swoon-worthy entry with her vibrant heroines searching for a love they deserve but might not get because they’re afraid of letting their guard down a second time. With any novella, it’s always a challenge to fit the story into so few pages, and Cole has absolutely delivered a story that could have filled a whole novel in its heft and emotional depth. It’s never a bad thing to be wishing for more, but some of the book’s primary sources of conflict do end up feeling rushed with such expedient storytelling. Cole wisely tries to nod to this, having the characters acknowledge how quickly they fall in love – but this delectable morsel inevitably leaves you starving for just a bit more no matter how expertly Cole spins her story.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B+

Gallery Books

My Favorite Half-Night Stand
By Christina Lauren
Review: If you’re looking for a solid romance with all the feels that hits that sweet spot between contemporary confection and hefty emotional undercurrents, you can never go wrong with a Christina Lauren novel. The writing duo, which consists of Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, delivers yet another enchanting, compulsively readable escape with My Favorite Half-Night Stand. Millie Morris has always been one of the guys, a fun-loving jokester who enjoys the lack of emotional engagement her friend group requires – until she and BFF Reid Campbell fall into bed together for the titular “half-night” stand. Things complicate further when Millie matches with Reid on a dating app under an alias and finds she’s able to open up to him in ways she’s just not capable IRL. The book is a breezy read flitting from Millie and Reid’s first night together to their delightful dating app exchanges (and the downright hilarious text exchanges between their larger friend group). It perfectly captures the essence of the much-trickier-than-it-seems friends-to-lovers trope as it slowly tips Millie and Reid from the easy rhythms of friendship into the complex dance of romance and sex. Lauren’s writing style is punchy and intoxicating, like a hit of a pop culture cotton candy fix you just can’t get enough of – but don’t take that to mean their stories don’t also possess a fair share of emotional weight. Millie’s emotional hang-ups stem from a very young loss and her struggles to find effective means of coping with grief. Lauren write movingly of the great lengths we’ll go to strap armor over our greatest vulnerabilities to avoid getting hurt, while buoying it with their trademark humor and wit. Not to mention, they nail the pitfalls of online dating, particularly the stark differences in experiences for women and men in the world of technologically-fomented love. Yet again, Christina Lauren offer up a delectable, moving take on modern dating with My Favorite Half-Night Stand, reminding us all that when it comes to intoxicating, sexy, playful romance that has its finger on the pulse of contemporary love this duo always swipes right.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A-

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