By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 29, 2019 at 03:34 PM EDT
Avon Books; Harper Collins(2); Simon and Schuster; Carina Press

People love to tend to stereotype romance as a fluffy reading space — formulaic novels with unrealistic fairy-tales at their heart. But that stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. In actuality, romance, because of its guaranteed happily-ever-after, is the perfect place to explore some of life’s toughest issues. Within the context of a central romance, romance novels can be a crucial platform to discuss everything from the woes of online dating to overcoming the trauma of past abuse to facing sexism in the workplace. This month we review 5 titles that do just that.

Harper Collins

The Right Swipe
By Alisha Rai
Review: Alisha Rai kicks off her new series, Modern Love, with a dizzy, delicious tale of a dating app developer and a retired pro football player. Rhiannon Hunter is the pink-loving, ambitious founder of dating app Crush, who has no room (or vulnerability) in her life for a long-term relationship. After being burned by an abusive ex, she’s only looking for one-night stands, which is why she’s extra annoyed when hook-up Samson Lima ghosts her after she broke her standing rule on second dates. When fate brings the two together and Samson proves to potentially be the key to a corporate acquisition Rhiannon is hungry for, the two are forced to address their presumptions and their crackling chemistry. Samson is a teddy bear of the highest degree, a retired football player who possesses the broad shoulders and winning dimples of your dreams. Rhiannon is a business-woman who uses her hoodies as armor, a keen mind who embraces labels like “difficult” simply because she knows it means she’s good at what she does. She goes through life insisting that success is the best revenge, but what she really needs is for someone to see through her calculated defense mechanisms to the soft underbelly – which is precisely what Samson does, embracing her deepest insecurities and employing the patience of a saint when it comes to her trust issues. Rhi is a nuanced, entirely real woman, not afraid of her sharp edges, but in no way the stereotypical female CEO who just needs some loving to soften her cutthroat approach to life.

While Rai has always had an eye for banter, she hones her wit here like a blacksmith sharpening her sword – it’s sharp and pointed in all the right ways. Reading an Alisha Rai novel is like being bathed in a warm, full-throated laugh that soothes as much as it charms. Her voice is delectably modern, one that pops and glimmers with slang, pop culture references, and cuttingly funny musings about life (raise your hand if you feel personally attacked by this book’s quip about everyone thinking their city is the worst for dating). She couldn’t pick a topic rifer for observational humor than dating apps and the general woes of modern dating, a subject she handles with aplomb, spearing everything from ghosters to f—kboys courtesy of Rhiannon’s insights as a dating app developer. But Rai is also never one to shy away from big topics, tackling everything from depression to emotional abuse in her previous books. Here, she lands on two hot button issues – sexual harassment/abuse in the workplace and concussions/CTE in the NFL. Per usual Rai addresses these issues with unparalleled sensitivity, grappling with big questions like grief, emotional vulnerability, and the cost of standing up for what’s right. She toes the line between Rhiannon and Samson’s very real problems – Rhi’s struggle to move forward from a toxic relationship, the cost of coming forward with harassment accusations, the complicated realities of CTE and a love of football – and her whip-crack sense of humor, lacing it all together with enough sexy interludes to keep the fire sparking throughout. She has an innate gift for cutting straight to the heart of things, in ways that will move you to tears, without ever losing the winning, breezy humor that makes her books such buoyant, un-put-down-able delights. Rai’s series may be named Modern Love, but it might as well be the moniker for her brand as an author as a whole – her work is fresh, bright, engaging, lushly romantic in a squee-inducing fashion, and all the things you hope modern romance to be, both in practice and on the page. The Right Swipe is a divine addition to a quickly burgeoning bibliography of thoughtful, sexy reads that pop with liveliness and warmth while possessing depth and soul in equal measure.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A

Avon Books

The Wallflower Wager
By Tessa Dare
Review: Tessa Dare continues her effervescent charming Girl Meets Duke series with this tale of animal lover Lady Penelope Campion and ruthless, gruff Gabriel Duke, nicknamed the Duke of Ruin for his tendency to take wealthy families down. Gabriel is determined to sell his house for a large sum, but his next-door-neighbor, Penny, and her menagerie of animals are a decided deterrent – so, he agrees to help her find new homes for her animals and get her name in the society pages. Of course, from the moment Penny first claps eyes on a dripping wet and mostly naked Gabriel, the attraction between them is palpable, even if Gabriel feels his rough-and-tumble upbringing renders him an impossible match for an Earl’s daughter. Without question, Dare is the funniest author of historical romance working today (perhaps ever). Her books sparkle with wit, well-placed one-liners, and a cadre of supporting characters and comical circumstances that will have you grinning from start to finish. The Wallflower Wager is no exception, with Gabriel’s dry wit and sarcasm, Penny’s earnest but well-placed retorts, and a foul-mouthed parrot guaranteed to make you scream with laughter. But what makes Dare’s work so winning is her ability to blend her quirky sense of humor with pathos and heart. Here, Penny and Gabriel suffer from very real wounds – Gabriel has abandonment issues, while Penny’s past delves into sexual abuse and the grooming of a minor. Kind-hearted Penny, with her hilarious assortment of rescue pets, has been a standout throughout the previous two novels in this series, but now that she has her own book, she gains a new depth and a backstory that will break your heart. Her love for animals has been her defining feature, but now we learn why she’s drawn to these helpless creatures. Dare sensitively crafts Penny’s past trauma, layering it in ever so subtly until the third act reveal. Her off-beat devotion to creatures like Freya the hedgehog transforms from quirky and cute to something more devastating. Dare also makes Penny the heroine, not the victim, of her own story, allowing her to come to her own rescue and face her abuser in a fierce, unbearably brave fashion. It’s a hard-won victory as well, since we see the emotional scars of the trauma and blame she’s assigned to herself and the support and work she still needs to do to truly heal.  The Wallflower Wager is full of all of Dare’s signature swoons (her bedroom  — and alleyway! — scenes are on fire per usual) and her hilariously distinctive voice. But it also blends in a tale of past trauma and the crucial support and understanding of friends and partners in pitch-perfect ways. It’s deliciously funny, endearingly sweet, and engrossingly emotional in ways that feel courageous and heartfelt. The novel is yet another gem from Tessa Dare, who never fails to delight readers with her frothy tales that are as layered as an exquisite wedding cake. Boasting charm and elegance, her books are as delectably sweet and indulgent as frosting on a surface level, but cut into their layers and you’ll find something altogether richer and more rewarding.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A-

Simon and Schuster

Sidelined
By Suzanne Baltsar
Review: Football season is about to begin in earnest and Suzanne Baltsar has delivered just the book to kick it off. Charlotte “Charlie” Gibb has landed a plum job as the head coach of a high school football team, and while she’s used to coming up against resistance from men in her position, she’s not accustomed to finding them so attractive. Connor McGuire is her offensive coordinator, who is dismayed to discover he lost the job he was sure was his before being sidelined by what he believes is a publicity stunt. Naturally, these warring coaches pretty quickly fall for each other, but have to navigate everything from professional jealousy to the implications of going public with their relationship. Baltsar dives into the challenges and misplaced assumptions of being a woman in what is perceived as a man’s job. Charlie is constantly fighting to prove herself – to her players, her fellow coaches, the team parents and more. But it doesn’t take long for Connor to see she’s got the goods – though the book wisely digs into the pitfalls of how jealousy and professional disappointment can bring out the worst sides of ourselves (and sometimes that means the sexist side). The book pops with the details of its richly drawn world, quickly getting you caught up in the fortunes of the football team and leaving you rooting them on as fiercely as the romantic relationship. It’s a bit like if Friday Night Lights featured Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) as a football coach and Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) were her hunky assistant coach (and yes, we did imagine Kyle Chandler as the hero for the entire book). At times, Charlie is a frustrating heroine, stirring up conflict with Connor in a “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t fashion” that can grow exasperating. They revel in their argumentativeness, a tried and true trope for romance readers, but it can veer into territory where you truly wonder if this would be a healthy long-term relationship. Still, any football lover will enjoy this sports-fueled romance and how the hero and heroine move from rivals to teammates in the best sense. Baltsar has developed a warm group of female friends carrying over from her previous book Trouble Brewing. Charlie is quickly integrated into their core group, and their sisterhood comes through in some of the warmest, most winning moments in the novel. It may be just short of a touchdown, but for football lovers looking for a romantic diversion, Sidelined makes a solid effort at racking up some charming yardage.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B

Carina Press

Playing House
By Ruby Lang
Review: With Playing House, Ruby Lang offers up a satisfying wisp of a novel that will leave you hungry for more. City planners/urban developers Oliver Huang and Fay Liu are longtime acquaintances who find a romance blossoming between them when Fay feigns a relationship with Oliver to avoid a pushy guy. Soon, the two are gallivanting around New York City neighborhoods pretending to be newlyweds and marveling at architectural details and historical preservation efforts. Fay feels an immediate connection with Oliver, but Oliver is hung up on the fact that he’s also recently applied for a job at her company. Lang’s novel is brisk and envelops you quickly in the lives of its warm characters who find a lifeline in each other. Fay and Oliver’s chemistry pulses on the page, and the story throbs with an immediacy as you’re hurtled headlong into their sudden attraction. But what really makes their relationship sing is that the prospect of their relationship kickstarts their efforts to heal from past familial and romantic wounds. Lang’s book is really more novella than full-length novel, and this can be a bit frustrating, as Oliver and Fay’s story certainly leaves room for a meatier story. However, the result is that you’re thrust into their whirlwind romance in medias res, clinging for dear life onto their revelations and wants as much as they are. Lang also writes beautifully of family expectation, of how Oliver and Fay have stifled themselves and their dreams in feeling beholden to mothers, brothers, sisters, and dissatisfied former spouses. Their romance is the first thing in their lives they feel free to claim for themselves, unleashing a wealth of possibility in other walks of their lives. For such a short novel, Lang also writes with startling clarity and detail – Oliver and Fay’s inner lives are painted with great care, and the subtle details of the houses they visit and spaces they inhabit provide an exquisitely drawn backdrop for their love story. The story could benefit from some breathing room – greater time spent with secondary characters or even developing Oliver and Fay’s relationship at a more leisurely pace would only deepen and strengthen it. That being said, it’s hard to criticize a story that feels so vitally alive when its greatest sin is that it leaves you wanting more.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B+

Unsolicited Duke Pic
By Nico Rosso
Review: How could you not want to read a book with a winking delicious title like Unsolicited Duke Pic? Unfortunately, Nico Rosso never quite lives up to the promise of that delightful invitation. But he sure does try. After being falsely slandered by a lascivious aristocrat, painter Sofia Brito is feeling desperate, which is why she accepts a commission to paint the Duke of Lighthorn’s anatomy (a request he makes to honor a bet). Sofia assumes the worst of the Duke (Thomas to those he loves), but she’s quickly surprised to discover his goodness and the undeniable pull she feels to him. Rosso spears his opening premise with gusto, making light of the task at hand in a way that lends Sofia’s painting project both an undeniable humor and an erotic charge. Their connection is forged as the barriers of class and propriety fall to the intimacy that comes from a commission of such a sensitive nature. The novel is brief (barely over 100 pages), and it’s nearer the erotica end of the scale than traditional romance in that Sofia and Thomas’ relationship begins and is strengthened and renewed through their sexual relations. We learn some of their back story — Thomas’ cruel father and Sofia’s experiences as the daughters of Portuguese immigrants – but they’re more sketches than vivid portraits of their inner life, only allowing their emotional bond to go so far. That being said, Rosso paints his world as vividly Sofia does her portraits – the lush colors, scents, and lights of his tale swirling off the page. Sofia’s tale is a compelling one – an immigrant and artist, well aware that even love might not be enough to break through the strictures of 19th century British classism. Thomas is the rare aristocrat willing to overthrow the whole damn system to stand by what he values. Both viewpoints are rich fodder for emotional tension and resonance that could benefit from a deeper, more prolonged examination. Like the image hinted at in his punny title, Rosso’s novel teases and tantalizes with its early suggestiveness, but ultimately the goods themselves aren’t as satisfying as one might hope.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B

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