Note from EW on April 10, 2018: If EW had known about the allegations against Santino Hassell, we would not have written about his title featured in this column. By mutual agreement with the author, Berkley has terminated its relationship with Santino Hassell. InterMix will no longer publish the next two novels in the Barons series.
Opposites attract, and tales of hate-turned-to-love are as old as the romance genre itself, but there are always new ways to pair people who at first have nothing in common or are not predisposed to true love. These five January releases explore the evolution of connections that arise out of obligation (mail-order brides), unavoidable proximity (falling for your new boss), long-standing rivalry, and second chances when you butt up against a life you thought you left behind. The stories of how we come to love each other, as opposed to love-at-first-sight or immediate attraction, are often far more interesting and contain untold depths and nuance — as is the case with these five January romance novels.
By Beverly Jenkins
Review: Jenkins closes out her Old West Rhine Fontaine trilogy with the tale of mail-order bride Regan Carmichael and doctor Colton Lee. Carmichael is a spitfire more than capable of holding her own; the novel opens with her gunning down outlaws in a stagecoach robbery and accidentally shooting her intended in the process. She’s a Western heroine of the highest order — equally at home riding across the Wyoming plains in denims as she is wearing her finery to converse with the society women in town. The character is reminiscent of those portrayed by Maureen O’Hara in John Wayne films: feisty, warm, impassioned, and authentic (if old Hollywood had ever bothered to tell nuanced stories of people of color, that is — an injustice Jenkins aims to rectify in her writing). Colton Lee is her intended, a dedicated, intelligent doctor and widower, more interested in finding a suitable mother for his child than a love match, but he finds Regan’s generosity and boldness inescapably intoxicating. Jenkins is a master of setting and place, and the wide, open spaces of Wyoming ranches and the small territory town leap vividly off the page. You can practically smell the dirt and feel the expanse of the sky. And Jenkins injects many compelling ripped-from-history details to boot. Though Regan and Colton have a warmth in their chemistry, she is so inspiring and fierce a heroine that he can’t help but pale in comparison. Colton is admirable to be sure — a self-assured, talented doctor who has fought racism at every turn to carve out a life for himself and his family. Yet, he is so withdrawn and even-keeled that he can’t quite stack up to his vociferous leading lady. The novel finds its best moments in the non-romantic portions: the deeply moving bond between Regan and Colton’s daughter Anna as Regan coaxes her out of her shell; the sisterhood between Regan and new sister-in-law Spring, a rancher and tough-as-nails cowgirl (um, can we get Spring’s story next?); and Regan’s efforts alongside the town’s other women to promote progress and education. Here, the most intriguing and gripping love on display throughout is that of the sisterly and maternal variety, which ultimately offers a more well-rounded and satisfying happily-ever-after than a purely romantic one.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
By Jennifer Armentrout
Review: With Moonlight Sins, Armentrout has crafted a contemporary answer to Jane Eyre. Julia Hughes takes a job as a live-in nurse in the Louisiana Bayou, but she gets more than she bargained for when her employers turn out to be the wealthy De Vincent clan who occupy a mansion straight out of a Gothic Romance. The house is supposedly “cursed,” and though Julia knows precisely who the patient in the attic is, she’s still haunted by strange noises in the night and the history of tragedy on the grounds. Youngest son Lucian de Vincent is a blond Rochester (though perhaps slightly more ripped and less inclined to wear a shirt), equally brooding and tortured, as well as questionably manipulative and controlling. The book occasionally pushes the boundaries of acceptability with his behavior, particularly in a cultural climate plagued with conversations of consent and coercion, but it toes the line, both by ensuring the heroine calls him out for it and making Lucian a practitioner of enthusiastic, verbal (and sexy!) consent. Armentrout nails the book’s blend of intrigue and suspense paired with genuinely crackling romance; Lucian and Julia can’t keep their hands off each other, and you, reader, won’t be able to keep your hands off this book. If you’re not getting lost in the smoking hot love scenes, then you’re tearing through the pages to join Julia in her quest to uncover the secrets of the De Vincent clan. Armentrout solves just enough mysteries to satisfy the reader, but simultaneously leaves plenty of loose ends to have us begging for the next book in the series. With Moonlight Sins, she’s crafted a swoon-worthy page-turner laced with enough passion to ignite a serious fire.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Let’s Talk About Love
By Claire Kann
Review: Let’s Talk About Love is a unique romance novel in that its heroine Alice is asexual. When she meets Takumi, a dashing co-worker at her local library, her life is upended by the flurry of nerves, butterflies, and seeming attraction he inspires in her. Through her friendship (and gradually more) with Takumi, Alice navigates both what it means to be her to be asexual, as well as how to develop a vocabulary to explain the intricacies of love without sex and the divide between romantic and sexual attraction. While romance publishing has plenty to tackle when it comes to diversity and representation, perhaps one of the most overlooked (and misunderstood) subjects is asexuality. For a genre that often delights in physical bliss on the page, a keen and thoughtful understanding of what asexuality means in the context of romantic relationships is often lacking. Here, Claire Kann makes an admirable debut with this milestone for ace visibility, offering both the opportunity to be seen to asexual readers as well as a channel for greater nuance and sensitivity to those who might feel perplexed or ignorant about what that means. Alice is a charming delight, and the novel is told through her breezy and warm narration as she confronts her unexpected crush and fissures in her longest-standing friendships — and finds the courage to be open about her professional desires with her parents. The book’s rom-com vibe at times clashes with the weight of the myriad of issues Alice is grappling with, but it’s a relief to find a novel that increases visibility without feeling the need to make it an after-school special. The romance never fully reaches chest-exploding measures of happiness and a swoon-inducing happily-ever-after; instead, it leans more toward a gray area — a tentative and gradual journey to contentment with a supportive partner. Still, it’s likely that’s because Kann is so committed to depicting a measured, realistic portrayal of asexuality, which she does with clarity and generosity.
Heat Rating: 🔥
Down by Contact
By Santino Hassell
Review: In the second book in his Barons series, Santino Hassell expands his NFL romance world with the tale of New York Baron’s quarterback Simeon Boudreaux and rival linebacker Adrian Bravo. Simeon is out and proud, which mostly earns him love and support from fans, except Adrian who uses any opportunity he has to taunt Simeon with veiled digs at his sexuality. When their grudges escalate to an on-field fist fight, the two are suspended and ordered to joint community service teaching. Once there, Simeon learns to look beyond Adrian’s mouthy exterior, while Adrian starts to question the nature of his feelings for his one-time rival. At first, it may seem strange to some to set a male/male romance in the hypermasculine world of professional football, but Hassell nails the sports’ inherently odd blend of homo-social bonding and machismo. Hassell has a reputation for writing gritty, smart-mouthed heroes, and Simeon and Adrian are no exception, though the book’s early “locker room talk” has the tendency to make one squirm. It’s there to elevate Hassell’s themes of identity, as well as shine a light on the toxic masculinity perpetuated in the sports world and the NFL in particular, but that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable to read. Adrian must learn to overcome ingrained modes of homophobia to accept Simeon, but also his true self. If you can get past some of this early dialogue, it’s a journey well worth taking to probe enforced modes of masculinity and their damaging effect on identity, love, and intimacy. Adrian and Simeon share an easy banter as they hurdle into a sexy, rough romance that starts as a high-stakes game of chicken and brings them into each other’s arms. As their relationship transforms from hurtful bickering to something more profound, Hassell vacillates between swoon-worthy yearning and steamy interludes that have both Simeon and Adrian throwing out their playbooks to life. Adrian’s denial and self-loathing are crafted with a careful and heartbreaking eye, making his eventual redemption at the hands of a snarky, lovable, thrill-seeking Simeon all the more touching. The book might perturb those not used to “unnecessary roughness” in both the bedroom and on the playing field, but it’s a powerful and romantic look at the power of love’s ability to break-through assumptions and bigotry in arenas dominated by deeply ingrained modes of thought.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
The Ones Who Got Away
By Roni Loren
Review: At first glance, the aftermath of a mass school shooting might sound like a tricky place to start a second-chance romance. The magnitude of the tragedy and its sickening sense of ever-presence in our lives feel hard to overcome when you really just want to lose yourself in a heady romance. But Roni Loren delivers and then some with the first in a new series, The Ones Who Got Away. Olivia (Livvy to her loved ones) Arias is a reformed high school rebel, a girl from the “wrong side of the tracks” who once dated the Long Acre high school golden boy, Finn Dorsey, in secret. Their relationship fell apart the night of their senior prom when tragedy struck and Finn left Olivia in the janitor’s closet mid-make-out session to save his actual prom date from gunmen taking down the “happy” students of Long Acre High. A documentary about the shooting brings them back into each other’s lives, and the old attraction flares up almost instantly. Both of their lives are driven by the tragedy — Finn wants revenge; Olivia wants to forget. The book tells an unflinching honest tale of trauma and the lengths we take to shield ourselves from it without ever actually confronting it. Olivia and Finn have dazzlingly hot chemistry, but also possess a deep, affecting connection. They help each other heal old wounds and move forward to embrace second chances and the people they always hoped they’d become. Loren writes movingly of the crippling effects of fear and self-doubt while also managing to tackle story lines that delve into classism, gender expectations, and more. Tragedy may be the inciting incident here, but ultimately, Loren gifts readers with a crackling, heartfelt love story with just the right amount of angst. If you need a reason to believe in the immense possibilities of second chances, Loren’s writing should do the trick.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥