By Maureen Lee Lenker
July 30, 2019 at 06:31 PM EDT
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HarperCollins; Harlequin; Penguin; Zebra Books; Kensington

The core tenet of a romance novel is its HEA, or happily-ever-after. Almost equally as important, though, is the voice it lends it protagonists, particularly its heroines. Romance is a revolutionary genre because it is one written predominantly by women and for women. This translates to one of romance’s other most core values: self-discovery/self-love. Often, the novels are as much about finding your happy ending with a partner as they are about learning to love yourself in a way that allows for the blooming of that romantic partnership.

This July we tackle five titles that celebrate this journey of self-love from a historical “Year of Hattie” in Sarah MacLean’s Brazen and the Beast to a quirkier contemporary in The Bookish Life of Nina Hill and plenty more in between. Here are our five titles for July.

HarperCollins

Brazen and the Beast
By Sarah MacLean
Review: What can be said about Sarah MacLean that hasn’t already? Last year, we declared her the intoxicating queen of historical romance, and her latest, the second in her sublime Bareknuckle Bastards series, keeps that crown firmly atop her brilliantly erotic, feminist head. MacLean consistently elevates romance to high art, besting herself nearly every time she puts pen to paper, and Brazen and the Beast is no exception. It follows buxom, brazen Hattie, a 29-year-old who believes she’s too bold, too ambitious, and too big (in height and curves) to ever win the love of a man she admires. That is until she meets Whit, a.k.a. “Beast,” a king of the Covent Garden underground – a meet-cute that involves her encountering him unconscious and tied up in her carriage as she plans to embark on the “Year of Hattie” and claim the life she believes she deserves. Beast, for his turn, is immediately drawn to this violet-eyed creature but determined to keep her at arm’s length for her own safety, having failed to protect those he loved in the past. The book is a rallying cry to any woman who’s ever simultaneously believed herself too much and not enough for a world that wants to place us into neat boxes of mother, wife, bitch, cool girl, and the like. As Whit revels in Hattie’s muchness, dubbing her his “warrior,” it feels like a repudiation of every time women have ever been told to expect less – because of gender, appearance, or other arbitrary excuses determined to wrest power from the hands of the fairer sex. It’s breathtaking, and a little heartbreaking in the best sense, to follow this indefatigable woman. A woman who still must learn to believe herself worthy of love, not merely a successful business and financial future. Whit is a grunting, broad-shouldered thing of beauty – a hero whose pregnant pauses might just have the power to make you pregnant. Writing a strong, silent type is immeasurably difficult, relying so much on internal monologue and what is said by not being spoken – and MacLean turns Whit’s gruff vocabulary into a Covent Garden chorale that taken together transforms into a symphony of grunts and silent thoughts (MacLean was rather famously inspired to base this character on Tom Hardy, but let me just say she’s exceeded her muse).

Brazen and the Beast is ultimately a story about control and trust, how to take it and surrender it when one’s heart is on the line. Whit must learn to accept Hattie as his equal – he calls her a warrior, and she is every inch of one, but it’s his ability to allow her to live up to the title in every sense that brokers their happiness. And for Hattie, this marvelous, bold, fascinating creature that every woman will likely both find themselves in and wish themselves more like, hers is a tale of seizing control – of learning to take not only what she deserves, but what she desires. MacLean uses the erotic imagery of knot-tying as a metaphor for this emotional arc, resulting in one of the sexiest scenes on the deck of a ship ever put to paper (you’ll never look at being tied to a mast the same way again). Her previous heroine Felicity Faircloth was a master of lock-picking, while Hattie is an expert in tying knots, lending her an air of swashbuckling swagger that will leave you giddy. With Brazen and the Beast, MacLean has crafted a bittersweet, tender, funny, engrossing meditation on what it means to be a woman, a partner, and an equal – one that will move you to tears, titillation, and laughter in equal measure with its wit, warmth, inventiveness, and stylistic beauty. The “Year of Hattie” does not go as planned for the heroine, but the idea of it – of drawing a line in the sand and seizing one’s life as her (or his) own — is a potent one that every reader can take to heart with renewed vigor after reading. After all, what else are we going to do while we wait for MacLean’s next book?
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A+

Zebra Books

Project Duchess
By Sabrina Jeffries
Review: Sabrina Jeffries is one of the long-reigning leading voices in historical romance, and her latest is a solid, if somewhat rote, entry from her always sparkling pen. In Project Duchess, Jeffries kicks off a new series about a thrice-widowed mother’s grown children. Fletcher “Grey” Pryde is struggling to put his past behind him, namely his childhood rampant with emotional and physical abuse, when his mother’s latest husband dies, calling him to her side. There, he meets the unconventional Beatrice Wolfe, a woman who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to show it – the only trouble is Grey’s brother suspects Beatrice and her brother (himself suffering from PTSD courtesy of the Napoleonic Wars) of somehow being involved in multiple family deaths. Jeffries pairs the low stakes delights of a cozy mystery with heartfelt romance as Bea and Grey quickly fall for each other whilst dealing with thick clouds of suspicion. The mystery itself is fun, even if there’s really not ever much doubt what the outcome might be. It’s absorbing and a fair, absorbing roadblock for the central romance, which can, at times, feel a bit too by the numbers for historical romances of this ilk. She strives to tackle a heroine who is a victim of sexual misconduct, and she largely succeeds in her sensitively concerned portrayal of Bea’s attempt at recovery and reclaiming sex and intimacy as a source of pleasure not terror. All without veering into anything on the page that feels exceedingly traumatic. Jeffries is always a surefire bet in this genre – from her crackling love scenes to her emotionally intriguing and vulnerable protagonists. And her ability to weave a mystery yarn into the threads of her romantic story creates a diverting escape – but hopefully next time she’ll go back to being a little less cozy.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B

Penguin

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill
By Abbi Waxman
Review: With The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, Abbi Waxman offers up a quirky, eccentric romance that will charm any bookworm. Nina is perfectly content with her life as-is, working in an indie bookstore in Los Angeles, killing it on her bar trivia team, and carving out lots of alone time to read. But when she is suddenly thrust into a new family when her long-estranged father dies and finds herself intrigued by a trivia rival, Nina is forced to step outside her comfort zone and take a chance on a life she never imagined for herself. Waxman perfectly calibrates Nina’s quirkiness and anxieties, managing to sidestep any of the pitfalls of the manic pixie dream girl trope that can plague fictional women of this ilk. Nina is warm and winning, while still experiencing symptoms any introvert or anxiety sufferer will find familiar and almost too relatable. Waxman writes with a wry remove, jumping wittily between her character’s thoughts and adding in plenty of asides about everything from Los Angeles neighborhoods to bookstore shoppers to literature. She looks at the world with a refreshing sardonic optimism, allowing her to inject humor into her observational style while never losing the palpable emotion at the heart of her story. Waxman’s novel will tickle the heart and humor of any Angelino – so few manage to get the city right on the page, but she chronicles its eccentricities, its stereotypes, and its most winning aspects with a healthy mix of adulation and skepticism. She also taps into the soul of the bibliophile, the eccentricities of loving a carefully ordered shelf, a perfectly arranged book nook, and the scent of well-loved pages. Waxman writes of bookstore as sanctuary with the wisdom and reverence of one who had sought her own refuge in such a palace a time or two herself. The novel is not really an out-and-out romance – it focuses more on Nina’s development and self-discovery than it does her burgeoning relationship – but it does offer a HFN (happy-for-now) ending. And the book is such a testament to a different kind of love that every romance reader will find relatable — that of the written word — that we couldn’t resist including it here. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill is a fizzy, off-beat novel with a dollop of satisfying romance, that’s heavy on its love affair with literature and the role that books can play in making sense of our lives (and helping us find meaning and connection). For anyone who’s ever wondered if their greatest romance might come between the pages of books they read, Waxman offers a heartwarming tribute to that possibility while also rendering a stirring testament to the value and hope in stepping outside the safety of that promise to build a life full of worthwhile risk and reality.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B+

Harlequin

How to Hack a Heartbreak
By Kristin Rockaway
Review: Kristin Rockaway taps into her own experiences as a former computer programmer to craft this tale of a young woman who codes her way out of a disappointing job and a series of frustrating online dates. Fed up with dick pics and caddish men, Mel Strickland creates Jerk Alert (.biz!), a website for women to vent their frustrations and expose the biggest jerks lurking on dating apps. When the app goes viral, Mel finds herself struggling to keep her head above water at her dead-end help desk job at a sexist startup. Even worse, she’s determined to keep it a secret from her new boyfriend, dreamy co-worker Alex Hernandez. Rockaway’s debut has been categorized as romance, though arguably the central relationship here takes a backseat to Mel’s personal and professional development. That doesn’t make it any less winning and vital. Rockaway has crafted a perfect book for this moment, as the furor of the #MeToo movement burns slightly less white-hot and women continue to struggle to be taken seriously everywhere from the startup suite to the boardroom to Hollywood. Mel’s frustrations are born out of the war zone that is online dating, an actual minefield of harassment and inconsiderate behavior. Any woman who’s had to come up against the terribleness of online dating apps, from dick pics to ghosting to liars, will relate to Mel’s simmering anger that explodes into a viral website of her own. This is paired with Rockaway’s sobering depictions of sexism in tech – the way her co-workers not only harass Mel but also belittle and discredit her abilities purely because of her gender is infuriating, and sadly, all too relatable. Mel isn’t perfect (she eventually realizes the equally problematic nature of the website she’s created), but she is an ideal heroine for our times – an imperfect woman struggling to prove herself against entrenched sexism in her chosen field. Given Rockaway’s own background in tech, these moments feel palpably real and disturbing, all too sickeningly familiar in how they manifest in ways both subtly insidious and disturbingly blatant. Owning her talents and her confidence are key to her romantic happiness as well – it’s distrust, deservedly instilled by her environment, that threatens to derail her shot at a relationship with an actually decent guy. Rockaway writes from Mel’s point-of-view exclusively, so it’s hard to get to know Alex on any deep level and understand where he’s coming from – but to be fair, it’s not really his story on any significant level. It’s also a pertinent reflection on how our own anger and mistrust propelled by the overarching problems of the patriarchy can keep us from realizing a good thing when we have it. With How to Hack a Heartbreak, Rockaway offers an entirely relatable take on the infuriating casual sexism that can permeate everything from a workplace to online dating apps, while also reminding readers to take a breath and a chance on themselves.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B+

Kensington

Too Sweet to Be Good
By K.M. Jackson
Review: With the second book in her Sugar Lake series, Jackson delivers a delectably sweet romance bursting with movie and theatrical references for all the film and musical nerds out there. Alexandrea Gale has put her acting career on the back burner to hit the reset button, but things get interesting when a local in her family’s hometown recruits her to renovate a local vintage theater. Drea has to go up against the owner’s grandson, the business-focused Kellen Killborn, who is eager to sell the theater in a corporate real estate deal. The two immediately spark in mutual irritation and attraction, dubbing each other “Boots” and “Suit” in honor of their chosen garb. Jackson offers readers a slow burn romance, spending the majority of the time on Drea’s determination to make the theater’s revitalization a reality and Kellen’s opposition to that fact. Because of this, sometimes their motivations and inner life feel a bit surface level, never truly pushing them into emotionally dangerous territory. Still, Jackson has given readers a lovely romance, and it’s buoyed by its rich cast of supporting characters, especially Mrs. Betty, the nostalgic, scheming owner of the theater and Kellen’s grandmother. It’s a pure delight to watch Betty and Drea wax poetic about their favorite classic films (even if Drea does misquote them at every turn, much to Kellen’s chagrin). With the plot focused on a movie theater and Drea’s background as a performer with Broadway dreams, the book will be catnip for any movie or musical theatre lover, with references abounding to plenty of beloved films and stage shows. Kellen and Drea have some charming interplay, both resisting their attraction to each other, until his grandmother’s plotting forces them to indulge their interest. With Two Sweet to Be Good, Jackson offers up a summer treat, sweet and breezily romantic in its charms.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥
Grade: B

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