Romance novels — smart, sexy, fun — are burning up the shelves these days. Our new monthly guide helps you find the ones to light your fire.
Credit: Avon; Pocket Books; Forever

Welcome to “Hot Stuff!” EW’s first ever romance review column.

That’s right, EW is bringing you our take on all the ripped bodices, dashing cowboys, and empowered heroines hitting the shelves (and the sheets).

According to Romance Writers of America, the romance genre accounts for 34 percent of all fiction sales. But the genre continues to be dismissed by critics who ignore how complex, diverse, and empowering it can be for its readers. We think it’s high time to change that, and we’re excited to bring you a monthly review roundup dedicated to the latest romance titles. This column will naturally appeal to devotees of the genre, but we also hope it will point new romance readers to some titles that will inspire them to dip their toes in the steamy waters.

Here’s how it will work: The last week of each month we will review 4-5 new titles released in that month (or in the first few days of the coming month). We will strive to represent a diversity of sub-genres from paranormal to historical to contemporary and more. Each title will get a review and a grade, in keeping with EW standards. Additionally, we’ll also provide a heat rating on a scale of one to five. This has nothing to do with the overall quality of the book itself – it’s just meant to indicate whether the more steamy passages inherent to romance novels are more akin to a hot cup of cocoa or the temperature on the sun. They rank as follows — one fire emoji: chaste; two: passionate kissing; three: sex, but it’s tame; four: explicit sex; and five: frequent, highly erotic sex.

So, without further ado, here are our four titles for the month of September. We hope you fall in love with this new column and find your book happily-ever-after.

Credit: Berkley

Going Dark
By Monica McCarty

Review: In today’s polarizing political climate a romance between a Texas-bred battle-hardened conservative Navy SEAL and a feminist environmental activist with a PhD in marine science should not work – and yet in Monica McCarty’s steamy, high octane thriller it does. When Annie Henderson, an idealistic environmental activist, travels to a remote island in Scotland to protest offshore drilling she finds herself in an increasingly dangerous situation with only the gruff, yet sexy dive boat captain to turn to for help. Dean Baylor, alias Dan Warren, is one member of a missing Navy SEAL platoon ordered to go dark when a mission gone wrong scatters them around the world – meeting Annie threatens to derail his plans to keep a low profile and avoid romantic entanglements. McCarty crafts a story full of edge-of-your seat thrills and unexpected twists, all perfectly underscored by a toe-curling romance that feels utterly believable given the high stakes situations. Adrenaline-soaked action sequences and witty, often politically driven banter take you on a sexy and intense thrill ride where you fall in love with the characters as swiftly as they do with each other. Dan and Annie are polar opposites in many ways, but amidst the gripping, page-turning suspense their romance also makes a compelling argument for the beauty of learning to listen in a world full of noise.
Heat Level: ?????
Grade: A

Credit: Avon

Chasing Christmas Eve
By Jill Shalvis

Review: With her Heartbreaker Bay Series, Jill Shalvis has crafted a motley crew of friends, each more lovable (and deserving of love) than the last. Chasing Christmas Eve is a sparkly, funny, charming new entry in the series this time following Spence Baldwin – the group’s resident geek and wealthy owner of the entire apartment complex. Colbie Albright is a best-selling author who needs to get away from her deadlines (and her overly dependent family); Spence Baldwin has never been able to balance his dedication to his work as a wealthy tech inventor and his love life. When Colbie flies to San Francisco for a vacation on a whim, the two cross paths and fall for each other in spite of her Christmas Eve departure date. Christmas trees and sparkling lights provide the perfect romantic backdrop for their December romance.

Shalvis often relies on her characters’ past traumas to provide obstacles to their romance, so it’s refreshing that the conflict here is one of ambition. The question of “having it all” and a decent work-life balance are challenges for both the hero and heroine, and they believably grapple with how to make room for someone you can’t live without when you’ve already built a life you largely love. Many who don’t read the genre believe that romance is unrealistic and escapist, but here the characters grapple with very real obstacles that speak to everything from gender norms to the value and meaning of family. The crew of friends that live (and work) in the historic apartment building are hilarious, tender supporting characters – and they’re slightly more in the background here than the previous three books in the series. I often found myself missing the fabulous cast of characters Shalvis has already assembled, but ultimately, Colbie and Spence are so easy to root for that you get lost in their tender and funny romance.
Heat Level: ????
Grade: A-

Credit: Pocket Books

Caught by the Scot
By Karen Hawkins

Review: Smoldering highlanders are a stalwart favorite of the romance genre, and their popularity has only increased with renewed attention on Outlander due to the Starz television series. Sadly, Conner Douglas in Caught by the Scot is a pale imitation of Jamie Fraser – a privateering Scot who must marry to secure his inheritance. Conner pursues Theodora Cumberbatch-Snowe, a spirited childhood friend, who rightly takes umbrage at his less than romantic proposal – partly because she’s already on her way to Gretna Greene to elope with another man. Hawkins gives Conner a thick Scottish brogue, but it jars with the dialogue in the rest of the book, often pulling you out of the story. Thea and Conner are ill suited regardless of attraction and their compromises never fully overcome their differences. The supporting characters, often so delightfully sketched out and nuanced in the romance genre, are under-developed and less than intriguing. Hawkins does write yearning particularly well – the sensation of a years-long crush nursed since girlhood leaps off the page and speaks to all who have ever felt deeply for someone utterly unobtainable. If you prefer your romance a little more on the longing glances side and less on the sheet rumpling, this is a good option for you.
Heat Level: ??
Grade: B

Credit: Forever

Long, Tall Cowboy Christmas
By Carolyn Brown

Review: Cowboys and Christmas are two of the most popular sub-genres in the romance world, and Brown has combined both for a particularly romantic stocking stuffer in Long, Tall Cowboy Christmas. Kasey Dawson is struggling to raise her three kids and get over the death of her husband, serviceman Adam Dawson, when Nash Lamont happens into her life. But Nash has a secret connection to Adam. Can the two overcome their haunted pasts and the gossip of a small-town in Texas in time to find love for Christmas? Brown leans a little heavily on stereotypes of the small town and tired tropes throughout (temporary amnesia is key to moving the central relationship forward), but Nash, Kasey, and the surrounding denizens of Happy, Texas are warm, funny characters that easily put a smile on your face. Brown’s dialogue is often stilted and it can sometimes be difficult to get past turns of phrase that feel more like the way a writer imagines people speak than how they actually do. Still, if you’re looking for a sentimental read with some cowboy flair, Long, Tall Cowboy Christmas will go down like a cup of hot cocoa – warm and sweet.
Heat Level: ??
Grade: B