By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 29, 2017 at 05:31 PM EST
Credit: HarperCollins; Simon & Schuster; HQN Books

Family is the name of the game for November releases — the families we marry into, the families we create of our own accord. Every release in this month’s column explores how family affects our relationships. And a “happily ever after” is never restricted to romantic implications — often, it’s finding acceptance, love, and the family you always dreamed of in the process of discovering an ideal partner.

Moonlight over Manhattan
Credit: HQN Books

Moonlight over Manhattan
By Sarah Morgan
Morgan has whipped up a holiday-themed romance as sweet at the Christmas cookies and hot cocoa she details in her pages. Harriet Knight is a shy dog walker with a stutter that she’s long had under control — until, that is, she meets Dr. Ethan Black, a gorgeous ER doctor. In her December quest to do one thing a day that scares her, Harriet ends up moving into Ethan’s apartment to dog-sit for one of her most loyal clients, who just happens to be his sister. Set against the twinkly backdrop of New York City at Christmastime, the story is an alluring holiday confection of two hardworking, kind, compassionate individuals who fall in love with a quietness and charm that sometimes is overshadowed by grand romantic gestures in tales of this nature.

Morgan’s characters are warm and possess real heart — literal embodiments of the cozy Christmas atmosphere she places them in. The supporting characters are numerous and thus get a bit lost in the shuffle (once we meet Ethan’s family and friends, it becomes a challenge to remember who is who), but there are nonetheless a few standouts, like Glenys, a kindly elderly client of Harriet’s, and Susan, a coworker of Ethan’s with a black sense of humor that’s matched only by her romantic wisdom. Reading Morgan’s romance feels like wrapping yourself in a cozy blanket on a cold winter night.
Heat Rating: ???
Grade: A-

Snow Falling
Credit: Simon & Schuster

Snow Falling
By Jane Gloriana Villanueva
Whenever a book is developed as a tie-in to another pop culture property, the results are generally hit or miss. Written by a ghostwriter under the name of title character Jane Gloriana Villanueva, Snow Falling is a romance novel straight from the telenovela plotting of CW show Jane the Virgin. The plot is exactly that of the show itself, with characters bearing a striking resemblance to Jane’s family and lovers – their names even all start with the same letter and they all hold the same professions as they do on the show. The only detail that’s changed is that the proceedings are set in Miami in 1902 and Jane, in fictionalizing her own love story, gets to enact a writer’s wish fulfillment. We even have the presence of a snarky narrator in italics.

Fans of the show will undoubtedly enjoy the chance to read Jane’s book in real life, but its charms pretty much stop there. It does create some winking humor in its take on historical romance — the bad boy love interest is named Rake, abandoning all pretense of subtlety. However, it feels like a modern television show shoehorned into its 1902 setting – its contemporary-sounding dialogue failing to the mesh with the odd mention of corsets and horse-drawn carriages. Lovers of the genre, unless they’re die-hard fans of the show, won’t find their book “happily ever after” here.
Heat Rating: ??
Grade: B-

Wrong to Need You
Credit: HarperCollins

Wrong to Need You
By Alisha Rai
Wrong to Need You is a quieter, more understated second volume in Rai’s Forbidden Hearts series, which began with the explosive, passionate Hate to Want You. With this tale of family tragedy, feuds, and forbidden love between the Chandler clan and the Oka-Kane family, Rai has crafted a series as deliciously soapy as a CW drama with a far more diverse cast and a heartfelt, sensitive eye for issues like depression, panic attacks, and social anxiety. This time out, widow Sadia Kane finds herself drawn to her brother-in-law and former best friend, Jackson, when he returns to town after a decade away. Jackson is coping with reconciling with his family while trying to hide the feelings he’s had for Sadia since he was a teenager.

Sadia and Jackson’s hang-ups are utterly believable, as they learn to maintain their sense of self while evolving through grief, long-held secrets, and open wounds. What’s more, their attraction and connection pops off the page; Rai writes erotic scenes that generate more heat than a sauna. The Forbidden Hearts series explores both the ties that bind us and the ways we can heal the past (or, at least, learn to let it go). Characters struggle with their mental health in ways big and small — panic attacks, crippling shyness, depression, perfectionism — and Rai tackles sensitive subjects with warmth and a refreshing lack of judgment. With her inclusive, multi-cultural supporting characters, smoking hot love scenes, and keen eye for plotting and family dynamics, Rai crafts some of the best romance writing of the year here.
Heat Level: ?????
Grade: A

A Daring Arrangement
Credit: HarperCollins

A Daring Arrangement
By Joanna Shupe
Shupe makes her Avon Books debut with a glittering historical tale set in New York City’s Gilded Age, when the Astors and Rockefellers ruled over the city’s upper classes. In a sub-genre where Jane Austen’s Regency era reigns supreme, the Gilded Age is largely untapped ground bursting with characters perfect for romance novels — self-made billionaires, high-society gossips, impoverished English aristocrats — and plenty of opportunities for hard-scrabble backstories on the streets of New York. Shupe has plumbed the era before in her Knickerbocker series, but A Daring Arrangement is an intelligent, sexy romp that elevates her writing to new heights. The novel is the first in her new “The Four Hundred Series,” in reference to the top 400 members of New York society. Shupe draws on historical details (like a party on horseback in one of the most exclusive restaurants in the city) to paint a luscious picture of excess, wealth, and adventure.

Lady Honora Parker, the daughter of an earl, talks the city’s most notorious rogue, financier Julius Hatcher, into a false engagement. She hopes to so deeply scandalize society that her father will call her back home to England, back into the arms of the penniless artist she loves. But much to Nora’s dismay, Hatcher quickly becomes the perfect fiancé (in service to his own secret aims), charming high society and Nora right along with them. In wanting us to root for the fiercely independent Nora as she abandons her English paramour for the devilish Julius, Shupe has set herself a tough task —but she expertly makes readers fall in love with him and their relationship as suddenly and unexpectedly as they do themselves. Their chemistry crackles in both bedroom scenes and quieter moments (suddenly, the New York Stock Exchange seems like one of the sexiest places on Earth).

Shupe delivers two protagonists who are equally headstrong, intelligent, compassionate, and stubborn. Julius loves carousing and outlandish parties, while Nora hurls herself into questionable scenarios with reckless abandon. Rather than try to justify this behavior or have the characters undergo a massive change of heart, Shupe deftly illustrates how their lust for life makes them a perfect match. In romance, opposites often attract, but there is nothing quite so romantic as the meeting of minds and the pairing of true equals as on display in this captivating, original tale.
Heat Level: ????
Grade: B+

Someone to Wed
Credit: Penguin

Someone to Wed
By Mary Balogh

The Regency era has long reigned supreme in historical romance, likely because Jane Austen and her writings loom so large as jumping-off points (though many would argue Austen is not a romance writer). Balogh undeniably draws her inspiration from Austen – her tone and style are reminiscent of the author’s phrasing and slightly removed tone, though she doesn’t adopt Austen’s signature third person omniscient point of view. In Someone to Wed, Wren Heyden is a reclusive heiress who sets out to buy herself a husband, fearing that a birthmark on her face excludes her from real love. Conveniently, her new neighbor, Alexander Westcott – the Earl of Riverdale — requires a fortune to right the failing estate he’s inherited.

The contrivances of a marriage of financial convenience give way to real feeling, but Balogh doesn’t imbue the characters with enough initial attraction and chemistry to make their gradual transition into true love anything but rote expectation. Wren and Alexander lack the intense passion that is required to drive narratives like this (which is partly due to the fact that as characters they are both nice, kind people with few faults). The novel is elevated by the central themes of family and the importance of love and purity of heart over surface-level beauty, and these bring some genuinely touching moments. But while Austen’s works, with their edge of social satire, have real bite to them, Balogh’s latest depends on heavy doses of charm and sentiment but nothing deeper to capture our attention.
Heat Level: ???
Grade: B