Hot Stuff: EW reviews the treats (and tricks) of October romance
Welcome to the October edition of Hot Stuff!
The romance genre has an almost mind-boggling diversity of options. In this new column, we think there’s a little something for everyone, whether your taste is contemporary, historical, LGBTQ romance, or YA: the latest from historical favorite Eloisa James, a Hamilton inspired anthology, a YA romance, a disturbing account of depraved dukes, and a sexy tale set in the world of reality dancing competitions.
One quick note about our choices – typically, outlets like EW focus on books released via a traditional publishing model (i.e. a major publisher and books available in print). As with our other coverage, most of our selections will come from that world. However, romance is a bit of an unusual genre in that much of the work comes from independent publishers, self-publishing, and e-books. To really cover the genre and its complexities (and particularly to ensure we are including authors of color who often are given short shrift in traditional publishing), we will also, from time to time, cover books under this model, as we have this month.
Wilde in Love
By Eloisa James
Eloisa James is one of the reigning queens of historical romance, particularly when it comes to the Regency and Georgian eras, so any new book from her is generally cause for celebration. The joy is amplified when it’s the start of a new series, since part of the delight of romance novels is watching entire families find their happily-ever-afters over the course of several books. Wilde in Love is the first in the “Wildes of Lindow Castle” series. Lord Alaric Wilde is a celebrated English explorer, beloved for the books which record his adventures. When he returns to England from his latest expedition, throngs of admirers wait to greet him. There’s one lady who isn’t fan-girling over him, though: Miss Willa Ffynche, the toast of the season (whose sterling etiquette masks her cheekier instincts). Naturally, opposites attract, and a fake proposal soon has them falling in love at a house party.
Though it still drips with James’ signature wit and frequent literary allusions, the book doesn’t quite pack the same punch as many of her previous works. Since it is the first in the series, there is a lot of time devoted to introducing us to the various members of the Wilde family, and that makes the central relationship feel a bit rushed. A positive offshoot of this is that you end up falling deeply for the supporting characters – from Willa’s bosom friends Lavinia and Diana to Alaric’s large extended family to a missionary’s daughter named Prudence who ends up being more Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction than devout Puritan. James also gives her heroine delightful animal sidekicks: Sweetpea, an adorable skunk (yes, a skunk can be adorable) and a preening peacock named Fitzy. If Alaric and Willa lack some of the complexity of her other heroes and heroines, the entertaining supporting cast (human and otherwise) more than makes up for it. Wilde in Love delivers heavy doses of charm and ample references to Shakespeare and the stage, which fans of James—a literature professor—have come to expect. More than anything, the novel makes us look forward to getting more of the Wilde family in books to come.
Heat Rating: ????
By Colleen Hoover
Review: In this YA romance, Merit Voss struggles to connect with her far-from-normal family, all of whom live in a repurposed church. There’s her mentally unstable mother, her father—who’s now married to her mom’s former nurse—and her twin sister, obsessed with dating terminally ill people. Merit finally sees a light at the end of the tunnel when she meets artistic, charming Sagan. The only problem? He kissed her thinking she was her twin sister. In this tale of long-concealed family wounds, Merit retreats further within herself until she decides to expose her family secrets and leave them behind forever. Things don’t go quite as planned, making for a quirky, touchy romance and—even more importantly—an honest and vulnerable exploration of depression. The book moves between laugh-out-loud passages, deeply romantic interludes, and raw and honest discussions of mental wellness, all while understanding how often we willfully misunderstand those we love most. Hoover expertly mines mental health as a setting for the interpersonal growth and soul searching that often comes hand-in-hand with the romance genre, making a strong argument that before we can love anyone else, we have to learn to love ourselves (or at least give it our best shot). It’s a romance novel, yes, and Merit finds solace and a helping hand in Sagan; the prospect of losing him drives her to acknowledge her own challenges and see her family with fresh eyes. But more than anything, Without Merit is a beautiful example of how sometimes the most important romance is the one we have with ourselves.
Heat Rating: ??
Duke of Desire
By Elizabeth Hoyt
Review: The latest in Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series is a historical romance with pitch-black undertones. When Lady Iris Jordan is kidnapped by the aristocratic cult known as the Lords of Chaos, she is “rescued” by the Duke of Dyemore, Raphael de Chartres, who is plotting to destroy the group from the inside. Dyemore is so dark and brooding he gives Mr. Rochester a run for his money (and with good reason—the secrets of his past are far more troubling and disturbing than a first wife hidden in the attic). The pair are hastily married to protect Iris, and she finds herself yearning for the pleasures of the marital bed rather more quickly than she would have imagined. Passages of intrigue are charged with palpable suspense and danger, while the steamier bits crackle and singe. At times, it’s hard to believe the happily-ever-after endgame given the deep trauma of what Dyemore has suffered and the historical era which would offer him little in terms of understanding or psychosocial support. Those who are highly sensitive to any kind of sexual trauma should probably avoid reading for that reason. But the point of the romance genre is escapism via a rip-roaring good yarn, spicy bedroom scenes, and the promise of true love and a happy ending, so though Duke of Desire dips too far into the darkness at times, the story in the end is still deeply satisfying.
Heat Rating: ?????
Take the Lead
By Alexis Daria
Review: Over the years on Dancing with the Stars, there has been no shortage of romance rumors between dancers and contestants, whether real or hyped by producers. It was inevitable, then, for this world to provide a backdrop for a romance novel. In Take the Lead, all of the celebrity contestants, bedazzled costumes, and fake spray tans of the ballroom dancing circuit take center stage on The Dance Off, a thinly veiled riff on Dancing with the Stars. When Gina Morales is paired with smoking hot Stone Nielson, a survivalist who stars on his family reality show Living Wild in the Alaskan wilderness, she knows immediately it’s because her producers are eager to spin a show-mance narrative. But she refuses to fall for their ploy, unwilling to risk her reputation and her dreams of channeling her career as a dancer onto a bigger Broadway stage. Besides, Stone Nielson hates Los Angeles and reality TV, and he is terrified of opening up to his partner lest he risk spilling family secrets. The only trouble? The two have an undeniable attraction to each other that only deepens with the increasingly fancy footwork. Daria believably crafts the behind-the-scenes world of a dance competition reality show, nailing the mercenary producers and the contestants and professional dancers who are their pawns. Dance is a difficult thing to describe vividly and compellingly on the page, but her passages about the paso doble and foxtrot are rich with as much steamy, page-turning detail as those describing more horizontal dancing (which themselves reach fan-yourself-with-the-pages-of-your-book levels— challenging considering this is an e-book). Though Gina and Stone both come from drastically different backgrounds and yearn for divergent lives, their fiery, deep connection keeps you rooting for them until the last page. Furthermore, both characters not only find mutual understanding and love, but also make immense progress in self-discovery and their own life goals, allowing you to champion them as complex individuals as well as a romantic couple. Though Gina and Stone’s story dominates the action and draws you into their disparate worlds, Daria also populates the world with wonderful supporting characters, from Stone and Gina’s caring, if sometimes misguided families, to fellow Dance-Off contestants who span the gamut of reality television tropes. Whether or not you’re a fan of dance competition television, Daria’s story of this behind-the-scenes romance is a perfect ten.
Heat Rating: ?????
By Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole
Review: At this point, few cultural entities remain untouched by the reach and influence of the phenomenon that is the Broadway musical Hamilton – so it was only a matter of time (see what I did there?) before the romance genre took on the $10 million founding father. In this anthology, Lerner, Milan, and Cole craft short stories tied to Hamilton’s Battalion, which fought in the Battle of Yorktown. Following his tragic death, Eliza Hamilton famously sought out the men who fought alongside her husband, and the entries in this anthology are structured as recollections that flow from responses to her request for their stories of Hamilton. It’s a fun idea for a historical period that currently has a lot of pop culture currency, but it falls a bit short because it’s unclear which parts of the accounts are for Eliza and which are personal reminiscences– if it’s the latter, they feel far too intimate and risqué to be shared with Eliza for a biographical portrait of her husband. Still, there are many fun Easter eggs, ranging from a litany of Hamilton references to threads tying the three stories and their characters together.
Lerner’s “Promised Land” follows Rachel Mendelson, a woman disguised as Ezra Jacobs and serving under Hamilton. When her husband—whom believed her dead—is arrested in their camp as a British spy, she finds herself fighting previously untapped feelings for him. The story itself is a compelling one, but it falls flat in short story form. Rather than getting snippets of Rachel’s past, it would serve the story better to have a lengthier tale including all those details.
Milan’s “The Pursuit Of…” tells the story of John Hunter, a freed black slave and revolutionary solider who’s attempting to get back to his family in Rhode Island alongside Henry Latham, a British deserter whom he can’t help falling for. Her story has an undeniable sexiness and Milan writes the dialogue of the laconic Hunter and garrulous Latham with aplomb, but their attraction and the depth of their emotion feels a bit unearned.
Cole’s “That Could be Enough” is by far the strongest entry in the collection. Mercy Alston is a maid in the Hamilton household, assisting Eliza in collecting tales of her husband during the war, when she encounters Andromeda Stiel, a dressmaker and the most intoxicating women she’s ever met. Wounded by a previous failed romance, Mercy resists her attraction to Andromeda, trying to ignore the possibility that their love could be enough to build the life she’s always yearned for. Cole’s lyrical dialogue and descriptions belie Mercy’s aims as a writer beautifully, and she makes even the briefest of stolen glances pulse with erotic longing. Of all the entries here, it tells the most complete story while also leaving you wanting more.
Heat Rating: ???
This post has been updated to correct two characters’ surnames in ‘Hamilton’s Battalion’ and clarify plot details.