Hot Stuff: January romance novels kick off 2019 with all the feels
It’s a new year, which means even more new romance. Adventure and taking chances are key parts of a great love story, and this month’s titles offer plenty of both in a myriad of settings with varying degrees of stakes — from the far fringes of space amid a resistance movement to the world of Greek myths to the Broadway stage to the more cozy confines of one’s own backyard. Whether you’re looking for love on a spaceship with a handsome stranger, with an old friend renovating your home, or with your irresistible professor, there’s a love story just for you this month.
By Amanda Bouchet
Review: It’s hard to describe what a riveting burst of joy Amanda Bouchet’s Nightchaser is — a sci-fi romance that blends the wisecracking teamwork of Firefly with the galactic overlords and hunky space scoundrels of Star Wars. Tess Bailey is one of the most-wanted women in the galaxy, captain of a crew of nightchasers — rebels who roam through space stealing supplies and more to help the resistance fight back against the tyranny of the so-called Overlord. When Tess ends up stranded on a planet with a broken-down ship, she recruits scalawag Shade Ganavan to assist with repairs, falling for him in the process. Only Shade is also secretly a bounty hunter, and Tess might just be the final job he requires. Bouchet offers up a rip-roaring space opera that feels utterly cinematic in scope and tone. Her delectable banter leaps off the page and makes you wish she would go write a Star Wars movie yesterday (but not until she finishes this series, because I need more RIGHT NOW). Tess Bailey is a heroine for our times: a tall, fierce woman who struggles to find balance between her own desires and her sense of responsibility to her crew and the most vulnerable members of the galaxy. She reads like a female Mal Reynolds, using her reckless bravery to obscure the pain of all she’s lost, thinking on her feet, and never at a loss for a well-aimed quip. Her diverse, motley crew assists in the comparison. Shade Ganavan is the roguish, Han Solo-esque hero of any geek girl’s dreams, whose history of gambling and working to save his own hide feels irresistibly familiar. He even introduces himself to Tess as a “Space Rogue Phenom” with enough swagger and devil-may-care energy to send you reeling.
This intoxicating romance is set against an epic tale of good versus evil. The story of a ragtag group of rebels fighting against a narcissistic, unbearably cruel dictator feels both delectably escapist and on the pulse of our current moment. Bouchet writes gripping, vivid action sequences that are so thrilling you’ll find it difficult to put the book down. She crafts a story so daring, romantic, and surprising you can’t help but turn each page in a fit of breathless excitement, making you feel like you’re immersed in the adventure on the page. With Nightchaser, Bouchet declares herself an inventive, brilliant, essential voice in both science fiction and romance. We’ve come to a moment when readers are hungry for a diversity of women’s experiences on the page, and Tess Bailey and her bundle of unapologetic complexities, her blend of ferocity and unexpected softness, offer this in spades. She’s a heroine who’s both utterly relatable and aspirational in her ability to kick ass. Readers should know that as Nightchaser is the first in a three-part series, it offers only a happy-for-now ending, but you’ll be itching for whatever comes next. The book is like the most delicious of meals, leaving you caught between your desire to relish every second and your need to consume it with gusto. Set in a galaxy far, far away but written with a deft hand and sharp wit that feels heart-poundingly immediate, Nightchaser kicks off a series that feels truly out of this world — and makes an early bid for one of the best titles of the year.
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99 Percent Mine
By Sally Thorne
Review: Sally Thorne follows up her sensational debut, The Hating Game, with 99 Percent Mine, a friends-to-lovers rom-com that somehow possesses more of the prickly energy of an enemies-to-lovers tale. Darcy Barrett has always believed that Tom Valeska is the perfect man — the trouble is her childhood friend (and honorary family member) has always belonged first and foremost to her twin brother, Jamie. When Jamie and Darcy inherit their grandmother’s moldering old cottage, they hire Tom to oversee renovations on the property, and Darcy sees it as an opportunity to not only prove her worth, but to make Tom 99 percent hers. Thorne’s quirky, biting voice remains as potent as ever in her second novel. Her sharp banter pierces every page, and her dark-edged sense of humor continues to make her work a model of sardonic romance. The glee and softer edges of The Hating Game give way to a harsher story and infinitely pricklier heroine.
Darcy even defies the “prickly” adjective romance readers love to assign difficult protagonists and goes for full-blown “unlikeable” status in a way that feels akin to the rise of the complex, messy, self-destructive woman we’ve seen more of on television in series like Sharp Objects and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It is both refreshing and a bit off-putting to have a heroine of this nature — each time you try to grab hold of Darcy, to hold onto her more vulnerable inner monologue or connect with her self-loathing (and general lack of necessary self-care), she slips up again. It’s realistic in the utmost, and all media truly does need more women who fall somewhere in between bitchy she-devil and tidy, aspirational figure — and yet, there’s something about Darcy that makes it difficult to give yourself fully over to her story. Maybe it’s that we only see her point of view, so we’re only permitted to understand her deeply damaged psyche, the healing she requires, and Tom as the man she’s put on a pedestal her whole life. Darcy does have to learn to understand him as a three-dimensional man rather than an ideal, but it’s still not quite enough to balance the scales between them. You want the best for Darcy, but it’s hard to see if that truly is Tom. Still, Thorne should be applauded for giving readers such a heroine to contend with, regardless of how successfully it lands for the reader.
Thorne is an immensely gifted author, who pens banter and crackling chemistry with the aplomb of a 1940s screwball comedy. With 99 Percent Mine, readers are treated to her unmistakable sense of humor and hilarious turns of phrase even if the central romance does take awhile to latch on to. It grapples with subjects like loss and chronic illness with an unflinching eye, for an altogether thornier and more emotionally taxing read. Where The Hating Game was a cotton-candy confection from start to finish, 99 Percent Mine is more like a sour candy: While it won’t melt in your mouth and you may have to push your way through to get to the sweet center, it’s still satisfying in the end.
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Crazy Cupid Love
By Amanda Heger
Review: Amanda Heger dives into the world of Greek mythology (or Roman, whichever floats your boat) for a whip-smart, playful romance with all the cheeky mischievousness of the legendary beings she’s chosen to explore. Eliza Herman’s tendency for klutzy mishaps has caused her to turn her back on her Cupid heritage until a family emergency calls her back into the world of enchantments that are her destiny as a Descendant of Eros. Attempting to correct the mistakes of her past, she begins to train under the watchful eye of her mentor, Jake Sanders, her childhood best friend who has suddenly hunkified in major ways. As Eliza tries to resist the allure of Jake, the two become embroiled in a conspiracy that threatens to destroy their careers and the fabric of romance itself. Heger writes with a playful tone that bounces off the page, making even the most ludicrous scenarios (think troubleshooting a sex robot using the male anatomy as a joystick) feel both outrageously funny and a seamless part of the wacky world she’s created. Lovers of mythology will delight in the myriad of Easter eggs she dots her pages with, while those with a more casual versing will still become engrossed in the humor of this sassy romp. The romance can sometimes fall secondary to the intrigue here, and the relationship between Eliza and Jake feels underdeveloped, relying so completely on the snatches we get of their past history growing up together. But if you’re looking for a breezy escape with a healthy injection of fantasy stakes, Crazy Cupid Love is a delightful valentine to lose yourself in.
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The Way You Love Me
By Miranda Liasson
Review: With The Way You Love Me, Miranda Liasson crafts a sweet, homespun romance that tugs at the heartstrings in all the right ways. Gabby Langdon has tried just about every class on the planet to cure her sense of dissatisfaction, but what she’s really always wanted to do is write. When she finally gets the courage to enroll in a creative writing class, she’s dismayed to discover her professor, Caden Marshall, is a brooding Heathcliff type she finds irresistible. The two have an instant spark, and Liasson paints a vivid inner life for both characters, deftly weaving in their past wounds that have made them wary. While hot-for-teacher romances are nothing new, Liasson tackles this potentially problematic power dynamic head-on, making it a key plot point and only allowing the relationship to flourish once its resolved. It’s always a tricky dance for a writer to write about writers, particularly if one of the characters in question is meant to be the toast of literary society. Here, again though, Liasson nimbly jumps from the prose of Cade’s Fitzgerald-loving soul to the happy endings of Gabby’s genre fiction. Within this, Liasson creates a brilliant playing field to tackle questions of literary snobbery, particularly when it comes to romance — expertly making a case for the genre’s right to be taken seriously in a way that feels natural and lighthearted, rather than preachy. While the central romance is solidly satisfying, the book’s truest joys are its large, warm cast of supporting characters who populate the tale with their own life lessons that guide Gabby and Cade to their happy ending. Gabby’s grandmother Nonna, who suffers from dementia, is both a perfect slice of comic relief and the romantic soul of the story when the truth of her past is revealed. Liasson deals with so much of what makes life hard — broken families, self-doubt, grief, and lost love — without ever losing the warmth and heart that characterize her writing.
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See The Light
By Kate McMurray
Review: While some might love cowboys and the open range and others are a sucker for a Regency ball, there is one thing I cannot resist in a novel: the siren call of Broadway. In See The Light, Kate McMurray uses New York’s thriving theatrical community as a setting for a sweet friends-to-lovers tale. Highly successful makeup artist Max has been in love with BFF Jeremy as long as he can remember, but when Jeremy moves into Max’s apartment after being dumped and lands his big break on stage, things get complicated. McMurray writes with a clear affection for the Great White Way, the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd oozing off the page. Theater is a fickle but intoxicating mistress, and McMurray captures it in all its idiosyncrasies, nailing the exhaustion of pounding the pavement for auditions, the trials of out-of-town previews, the challenges of first-night jitters, the allure of backstage, and the utter magic of the Tony Awards. What’s more, with only a handful of characters, she paints a rich canvas of the New York theater scene, giving you a glimpse into the lives of everyone from ensemble members to makeup artists. The book relies on angst for its conflict, making Max his own worst enemy, and at times, it can feel contrived. When Max has wanted something for so long, it can be a bit difficult to swallow his own self-sabotage. Still, McMurray elevates the novel with her deep affection for all her characters and her setting. Her love scenes are crackling, though she writes most electrically when she gets anywhere near the stage. And the book’s tender conclusion will bring any theater lover who’s ever dreamed of attending the Tonys to tears; it’s wish fulfillment of the highest order, executed with a deft hand. While some the book occasionally falters in its conflict, it ends on such a high note that you’ll wish you could give it a standing ovation.
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