By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 30, 2019 at 04:00 PM EDT
Carina Press; MIRA; Penguin

Whether it’s the wilds of Scotland, the picturesque grounds of an English country estate, the hallowed pages of Greek myth, or the rush of a football field, romance novels are aided by lush and potent settings. This April saw multiple novels tackle their setting with aplomb, using them for everything from inspiration for fiercest passion to the site of a relationship’s central conflict to the idyllic place to spark a meet-cute. Here are EW’s five April titles.

Carina Press

The Austen Playbook
By Lucy Parker
Review: Lucy Parker’s latest offering is a divinely delectable delight that is the apotheosis of why the romance genre exists — to provide an escape that hits you right in the feels. Parker continues her West End set series with this tale of eternally sunny actress Freddy Carlton, who finds her unexpected match in notoriously difficult-to-please London theater critic James “Griff” Ford-Griffin when an acting opportunity plops her on his country estate for several weeks. In the midst of a career crisis, Freddy decides to escape via portraying Lydia Bennet in a special televised event, The Austen Playbook, which throws Jane Austen’s most beloved characters together into a murder-mystery plot and asks for viewers to vote on the plot’s outcome. There are plenty of winking nods to Austen to please her most ardent fans, but the real meat of the story comes in Freddy and Griff’s undeniable attraction, which threatens to be torn apart when they begin to uncover a long-buried family secret. Parker weaves the sins and possible implications of the past effortlessly into her story, making them feel both utterly vital and wrapped in a gauzy haze of a romantic nostalgia. It’s as if an Ian McEwan novel wandered its way into a romance — but better, since it replaces the emotional traumas of his storytelling with a buoyancy that will leave a lingering fizzy feeling long after you turn the final page. Parker’s voice is distinctive and pert, as bouncy and lively as her heroine, and you’ll inevitably find yourself grinning at the cheeky banter and musings that zip off the page with a warmth and alacrity that is instantly disarming. There’s a specificity that instantly transports you to the novel’s myriad of settings, from the sanctity of a rehearsal room to the hilariously obscenely decorated halls of a country estate. Parker’s sense of humor is matched by equal wells of heart. Her voice will inspire giggles, while her plotting is imbued with deep emotion that understands the essential nature of finding a partner who is a supportive equal in every way. Freddy has led her life from a place of guilt and a need to please, and it’s emotionally refreshing to watch her find a partner who not only allows but urges her to let that go. In turn, Griff is catnip for anyone who can’t resist a curmudgeonly hero with the perfect dollop of biting wit — Darcy lovers seduced by the word Austen in the title won’t be disappointed. The London stage is steeped in a history and lore that has an ineffable but distinctive feeling, something Parker effortlessly captures in her work that lends it an immediacy and familiarity. The Austen Playbook is no exception, meriting a standing ovation for its dizzying array of delights that will leave you emotionally breathless, with a grin from ear to ear.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A

St. Martin's Press

Getting Hot With the Scot
By Melonie Johnson
Review: One of the delights of this column is finding debut authors to shine a light on, and Melonie Johnson is one such discovery, a fizzy, engrossing new voice in the genre. Getting Hot With the Scot is the first in her Sometimes in Love series, and it’s part fantasy-fulfillment travelogue, part rom-com, part strident defense of romance writing. Cassie Crow has one particular goal for her lengthy European vacation: Have a one-night stand with a sexy foreign man. When she gets to Scotland and encounters one such man dressed straight out of the pages of Outlander, she can’t resist kissing him — until she figures out that he’s Logan Reid, the host of a popular prank-based sketch show. Still, the two can’t deny their flaming chemistry, as flagrant as Logan’s red hair, and it’s aided by his penchant for a kilt. Johnson balances their rocky start aptly with their thermometer-busting heat levels, which have them barely making it out of the elevator their first night together. This book is a major smoke-show at crucial moments. If the primary obstacle to their happiness remained the dishonesty at their first meeting and Logan’s desperate need for this video to propel his show to further heights, the book would reach true greatness. But Johnson complicates things further with his angsty backstory. She writes grief adeptly, plumbing how it hits each member of a nuclear family in uniquely devastating ways, but it can start to feel like too much to overcome too soon. Still, Johnson paints a vivid picture, capturing all her settings — from the bustle of Edinburgh and Chicago to the majesty of London and the Scottish Highlands — with skill. Most particularly, she’s a master of character, offering up a variety of distinct lovable women in Cassie’s core friend group, who will serve as fodder for further books in the series. From foodies to romance readers to Anglophiles, Johnson’s characters are instantly relatable and endearing. Cassie’s love of romance novels and head-on-her-shoulders approach to her career make her a compelling heroine opposite the irresistible nature of Logan’s Scottish brogue and heaps of charm and good humor. What’s more, Johnson expertly uses Cassie’s own story line to further a point near and dear to this column’s heart: the value and de-stigmatization of romance novels as reading material. Many of her readers will likely thump the book in hearty approval, but it’s always a pleasant reminder to have romance championed on the page as much as its most ardent advocates consistently must do in real life. It adds more real-world undertones to the frothy escapism of a Scottish fling turned happily-ever-after, giving the story a potent kick. Johnson has crafted a romp with plenty of heart and just the right amount of bite, making her an instant essential addition to the exploding collection of rom-coms on shelves right now.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B+

Penguin

Fumbled
By Alexa Martin
Review: Alexa Martin follows up her winning 2018 debut, Intercepted, with a novel that’s even deeper, richer, and more hilarious. In Fumbled, we meet Poppy Patterson, a young single mother who is devoted to her 9-year-old son, Ace. Things get complicated when star football player T.K. Moore, Poppy’s ex-high-school-boyfriend and the father of her child, comes back into her life. Poppy has spent 10 years thinking T.K. abandoned her and her unborn baby in pursuit of his football dreams, but she quickly discovers that he never knew about her pregnancy due to the machinations of his mother. In fact, T.K. has spent the last decade wondering why Poppy suddenly disappeared from his life without a word. The two quickly fall back into the rhythm of their relationship, with the added heartwarming bonus of T.K.’s devotion to the son he never knew he had. Poppy is a fabulous new addition to Martin’s canon — warm and smart-mouthed, but with the courage of her convictions. Being married to an actual former professional football player, Martin understands to a T how to craft the world of football players and their significant others. (There’s a paragraph about the cult of football that will move any lover of the sport to simultaneous tears and laughter at how truly it cuts to the all-consuming nature of fandom.) But that also means she knows how to create the perfect football hero — and T.K. Moore, with his Chris Hemsworth-worthy blond locks and six-pack (or eight-pack?) abs, is a delicious snack any reader will love to devour. He’s a teddy bear with Thor’s body. While Martin’s writing style is the breezy stuff of conversations with your best friend, Fumbled dares to grapple with the most pressing and controversial issue facing football: the specter of CTE and the sport’s tendency to put players in harm’s way without batting an eye. Martin makes the issue the central conflict in the book, unafraid to allow Poppy to stick to her guns about her concerns when it comes to everything from her kid’s desire to play tackle football to T.K.’s own injuries. These are tough conversations to have — how do we grapple with the inestimable human cost of a sport that has become a multimillionaire dollar industry that treats human beings as commodities to be bought and sold? Martin writes movingly of the terrible sense of powerlessness that comes with watching a football injury play out in real time, with the added punch of her personal experiences. Sports romances often use the sport as a fun setting to give the hero wealth and a perfect body, but Fumbled takes things a step further. Martin takes a hot-button contemporary issue and tackles it with emotion and verve, making it the perfect obstacle in the relationship — the resolution of which only makes the happily-ever-after expertly bittersweet and all the more earned.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A-

MIRA

The Rose
By Tiffany Reisz
Review: Tiffany Reisz writes erotica designed to titillate and enthrall the nerdiest of literary enthusiasts. In a follow-up to The Red, Reisz returns to the Godwick family to tell the tale of eldest daughter Lia, an intelligent young woman who has used her considerable wealth and network to start an escort service. At her university graduation party, she encounters August Bowman, an intriguing young Greek man who has an interest in her graduation present: the legendary Rose Kylix, a cup that was reportedly used in temple ceremonies of Eros, the Greek god of erotic love. August warns Lia that the cup has the power to bring your most intimate and erotically charged sexual fantasies to life — and then proceeds to attempt to dispel her skepticism of myths and magic by having her drink from it. As the two enter into an intimate exchange circling around the ownership of the Kylix and a blackmail plot against Lia, they find themselves drawn repeatedly into fantasies where they become the subjects of Greek myth in their most intimate scenarios. Reisz takes the implicit eroticism of mythology and heightens it, using it to spur Lia and August to new sexual heights while weaving them into the fabric of time-honored myths like the tales of Perseus and Andromeda, Psyche and Eros, and more. She crafts fiery love scenes with passages so hot the pages should be singed, never shying away from the notion that fantasies are defined as such partly for their erotic outlandishness, a sexiness too extreme for the everyday world but utterly delicious on the page. Reisz is a master of building intimate emotional connection through these sexual encounters, drawing the characters inexorably together in a way that makes you fall as deeply in love with them as they do with each other. Where Lia is a skeptic, August is a pillar of faith — a man who holds the Greek gods and their stories in deepest reverence, almost as much as he values the art of pleasure and desire. The myths come alive even more vividly in the face of his steadfast belief, making the most magical of scenarios seem plausible and infusing them with all the cheekiness, capriciousness, humor, and pathos that have helped them endure for centuries. He worships women and the Greek gods in equal measure, in ways that will leave the reader breathless. But it’s not just the titillating text that makes The Rose pulse and vibrate with its own power, it’s the story that Reisz crafts around it, this notion that love can transcend time, fantasy, and immortality. The Greek gods are famous for their failings, but they are still immortal, and Reisz muses on how mortality makes love, eroticism, heartbreak, and desire all the more meaningful because they come with lasting consequences. To truly love someone requires sacrifice, something that immortality often deems futile. Reisz taps into this truth, painting a love story as sweeping and mesmerizing as the myths she uses for inspiration. She selects each myth, and a passage from The Wind in the Willows, with care. Reisz makes real the possibility of jumping into one’s favorite stories, understanding the latent desire there that goes beyond an intellectual fascination. We read to escape into a world where are deepest desires are made real, and here, Reisz shows the staggering power of doing just that. The Rose is an immensely erotic novel that, by spiritualizing and celebrating the power of stories, dares to elevate desire to something more holy. In her deft hands, entering the world of one’s most treasured tales becomes something deeper and more spiritual than mere fantasy or wish fulfillment — here, love, sex, literature and worship are inextricably intertwined, making the profane sacred and stories the greatest form of veneration.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A

HarperCollins

The Takeover Effect
By Nisha Sharma
Review: Nisha Sharma launches her Singh Family trilogy with this tale of sexy boardroom dealings and untapped family secrets. Oldest son Hemdeeph Singh knows he wants to make his own mark outside of family company Bharat Inc., but when the family empire is threatened and his father’s health takes a turn for the worse, he returns home. Only to walk into the boardroom and encounter Mina Kohli, a young woman who is determined to recover control of her mother’s law firm, even if it means agreeing to an arranged marriage with a man she doesn’t love. But her and Hem’s undeniable attraction proves a conflict of interest to them both, which only gets more complicated as they begin to uncover family and company secrets that could undo everything they’ve both worked so hard to protect. This marks Sharma’s first adult romance, and her voice is still a bit rough around the edges. Sometimes her hero and heroine feel more like an estimation of what Sharma thinks women want to read rather than fully formed figures of her imagination. Yet Mina and Hem are both take-no-B.S. protagonists, who stride through life unafraid to be reckless in seizing the things they want, including each other. The sizzle of the bedroom scenes is matched by the intrigue of the boardroom, drawing you into the mystery at the novel’s center as well as Hem and Mina’s crackling chemistry. The Singh family is a warm and idiosyncratic group, ideal fodder for a romance series, which Sharma lays the groundwork for here. The most moving passages deal with this question of family and legacy, as Hem and Mina both must realize that legacy is a more fluid and personal experience than building any one particular business or tangible symbol of success. She also imbues the novel with much of Hem and Mina’s cultural background, building their romance through shared exchanges over Indian food and lacing in snatches of Punjabi language to ground Hem’s home life in reality. It’s one of the most engrossing aspects of the book, and Sharma effortlessly blends the rituals of the culture she celebrates on the page with a steamier romance that slightly bucks the traditionalist notions of the Singh family. There seems to be a patently absurd school of thought that people only want to read books that reflect themselves, but The Takeover Effect is yet another example of how a highly specific cultural experience can be undeniably universal, especially when it comes to falling in love. The novel dips slightly into the billionaire trope, and Hem, with his penchant for buying his girlfriends clothes, owes a debt to Christian Grey — like some many heroes in this subgenre. How successful or engaging that is likely depends on how much you enjoy that particular trope. But Sharma has also crafted a text all her own that is both a sexy love story and a testament to the power of family, legacy, and knowing how to recognize when you’ve found your way home.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B

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