Hot Stuff: February romance novels bring royal intrigue, elevator meet-cutes and more
Romance readers and authors are all about love, so it’s rather inevitable that February and Valentine’s Day bring a slew of new releases and think-pieces about romance along with them. The results can range from wonderful to frustrating to downright cringeworthy, but it’s a chance for the genre to be brought to the attention of wider audiences. Lucky for romance readers, this year boasts a cadre of spectacular new February releases. From a royal romance that feels like The Princess Diaries-meets-Black Panther to our “Must List” selection of The Wedding Date, there’s no shortage of great reads in the year’s shortest month. Here are five February romance reads for your perusal.
The Wedding Date
By Jasmine Guillory
Review: Rom-coms may be missing from our movie screens of late, but they are in abundance in fiction. One particularly swoon-worthy example is Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date. It takes all the typical tropes of the genre, including an outlandish meet-cute in an elevator, to the extreme, while also adding a heavy dose of real-life issues like race and gender politics. Alexa and Drew meet when their shared hotel elevator breaks down, and on a whim, he invites her to be a plus-one to his ex-girlfriend’s wedding that weekend. They fall hard and fast, but both fear it’s purely physical for starters. Lots of things serve to divide them — from the prospect of long distance (she lives in Berkeley; he lives in L.A.) to the fact that Drew is sort of an insensitive idiot at times. It’s a testament to Guillory’s writing that she can overcome both the fact that Drew lies to Alexa about some crucial details when they first meet and his general tendency to dump women after two months. Because somehow, despite all this, he is still a hunky leading man with major weak-at-the-knees potential. Even more importantly, Alexa is a big-hearted, relatable, bubbly presence who has you begging for her happy ending practically from the first page. She’s funny and charming, has incredibly relatable body-image and self-confidence issues, and most importantly is a capable, ambitious career woman who doesn’t need Drew — she just wants him. Perhaps the most amusing details are found in Guillory’s descriptions of food, ranging from Drew’s love of burgers and Mexican food to Alexa’s obsession with donuts, coffee, cheese, crackers, and more. Reading this book will likely leave you hungry, but also giggling with delight as you relate to the constant cravings and the centrality of food in so many of our lives and relationships. Guillory writes with the fizzy effervescence of a glass of champagne, and the entire book goes down just as easily (and quickly). The Wedding Date starts out as a fling, but it makes us want a more long-term relationship with Guillory and her irresistible writing style.
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A Princess in Theory
By Alyssa Cole
Review: The fairy-tale notion of discovering you’re a princess or being courted by a prince (whether he’s a real prince or just princely in attributes) is at the heart of the romance genre, and Alyssa Cole employs it to full effect in A Princess in Theory — while adding a contemporary spin that puts it in the running for best romance of the year thus far. Naledi Smith is an orphaned grad student trying to make ends meet when a serious of emails claiming she’s the betrothed queen of fictional African nation disrupt her routine. She dismisses them as a scam, but they’re not, and when Prince Thabiso shows up in New York and she mistakes him as her new co-worker, sparks quickly fly. Thabiso knows he has to tell her the truth, but he also can’t resist the chance to get to know someone without his regal trappings. Cole is a master of writing self-assured, driven heroines who often find their self-worth in causes outside themselves. Here, Ledi is a PhD candidate in epidemiology who brims with intelligence and beauty, but still believes herself to be unworthy of lasting love due to a childhood in and out of foster care. This contrasts with Thabiso’s lifetime of entitlement as a prince, but the two share a moving strand of loneliness wrought by the entirely different circumstances of their lives. A Princess in Theory also debuts just weeks after Black Panther showed the world an African nation that was secretly the most technologically advanced place on earth, and the similarities between Wakanda and Thesolo are abundant (as are the parallels between the individuals who grew up inside the nation versus those left to the cruel whims of American foster care). From a young prince’s desire to ensure the best future for his people via scientific innovation to a strong rooting in African tradition and history, both nations offer a much-needed departure from the stereotypical depiction of Africa and African-ness most Westerners encounter.
Ledi and Thabiso’s journey together, however, is the heart of this novel and what makes it beat with as much palpable joy as the approaching royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Cole continues to write heat-filled bedroom scenes that crackle because of the real sense of intimacy she crafts between her characters, and she takes things to the next level with a cave scene that will have readers reaching for a glass of water.
The lead characters both offer something the other needs: While Ledi makes Thabiso a better prince and a better man, he allows her to finally realize how her protective walls have also shut out genuine connection and happiness. Cole also approaches the notion of being a prince with much more of an eye toward the stresses and responsibilities of such a role, rather than the overwhelming wealth or luxury of it. For these reasons, his deception and his earnest desire to be loved for his own merits play as understandable rather than manipulative. Amid the romance, Ledi also carves a life for herself as a top-notch scientist, proving her cognitive powers and big heart would make her an ideal princess. In Cole’s world, royalty and romance go hand in hand with compassion, open-heartedness, and intelligence, as well as a clear-eyed sense of real-world politics. A Princess in Theory is a fairy tale, yes, but one consistently grounded in reality, which makes the happily-ever-after all the more satisfying.
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Grade: A +
Devil in Tartan
By Julia London
Review: In the latest in her “Highland Grooms” series, Julia London pairs up the feisty Lottie Livingstone and the devilish sea captain Aulay Mackenzie for an adventure that traverses the high seas and scratches any Outlander-inspired itches you might have for tartan-clad hunks. Lottie could easily be a rote damsel-in-distress who trades purely on her sexuality to get what she wants – and indeed, that seems to be the case at first as she uses her feminine wiles to play the victim and pirate Aulay’s ship for her own ends. In turn, Aulay could be a simple character sketch of a man felled by his own lust and a healthy dose of Stockholm syndrome. But London expertly sidesteps outdated stereotypes at every turn, instead crafting a narrative about a brave, if naïve, young woman and a brash, lonely sailor. Lottie is a splendid heroine, whose greatest faults are her willingness to accept fault and her sacrificial tendencies — whether she’s calling the shots aboard a mutinous ship or falling in love with Aulay, she blooms with an intoxicating blend of ferocity and compassion. Aulay, in turn, is a younger son who finds his refuge in the sea, until he finds it in Lottie instead. His gruff exterior hides a sensitive soul that likes to paint and is looking for a woman to “fill his canvas.” Perhaps the best aspect of the novel is the reason he falls in love with Lottie: It’s not her beauty, which initially fells his ship, but instead her stubbornness and her skills as a leader (the qualities that make her a compelling heroine to readers as well). The love scenes are often disappointingly brief, which can make the chemistry between the two leads fall short at times, but London’s plotting, which results in a rip-roaring high-seas adventure, makes up for that. Both Lottie’s clan and Aulay’s family, whom we’ve met in previous novels, are a lovable, motley crew of characters painted with charming and vivid delight. Outlander has produced a glut of kilt-wearing romance heroes, but London delivers a fresh take with an old-fashioned yarn full of danger and romance that makes the happy ending feel genuinely hard-won between two characters perfectly suited for each other.
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Grade: B +
Wallflower Most Wanted
By Manda Collins
Review: When avid and gifted painter Miss Sophia Hastings takes a tumble while painting on a cliffside, she finds the attractive parish vicar Lord Benedick Lisle her rescuer. But before he can get the injured Miss Hastings to safety, the two overhear the conspiring of a murderous plot and find themselves drawn into a mystery involving political maneuverings, a local art dealer, and artistic forgeries. From the moment Benedick and Sophia meet on the beach, their pairing is a foregone assumption, and their coming together is far less scintillating than their joint sleuthing. Though their chemistry leaves something to be desired, as individual characters they are both intriguing. Benedick is charming in his passion for being a do-gooder, and his love of independent women is undeniably sexy. Sophia is a delight with her headstrong ways and desire to foment social change through her paintings. Though their pairing is not particularly inspired and fairly conflict-adverse, the mystery they work to solve together is enough to compel readers to keep turning the pages. All in all, the novel is a charming diversion, and Sophia’s determination for justice in all walks of life makes her a compulsively likable heroine. The book is a bit like cotton candy: airy and delightful, but lacking substance and a bit too sugary once you really start digesting it.
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By the Book
By Julia Sonneborn
Review: Novels inspired by the work of Jane Austen are a subgenre unto themselves, but it can be a mixed bag whether Austen’s wry humor, sense of satire, and deft understanding of our emotional lives is translated with care and devotion, or the more stereotypical elements of her work are merely lifted for effect. By the Book, a modern retelling of Persuasion, is thankfully one of the former. Julia Sonneborn weaves the tale of bookish English prof Anne Corey and her former beau Adam Martinez, who was just appointed the new president of Anne’s college. Anne and Adam were once engaged, but she chose her career over him. When he unexpectedly re-enters her life, could they have a second chance? As an English professor herself, Sonneborn expertly catalogs the heartbreaks and frustrations of the academic world as Anne struggles to achieve tenure-track status in the midst of a good deal of upheaval in her personal life. Campus life is described with a loving, knowing eye, sending readers straight back to days spent in college libraries. Knowing that its based on Austen in advance is perhaps a slight disservice in that you spend a large chunk of the novel waiting for the other shoe to drop when it comes to the other man in the story, as he is obviously cut from the same cloth as Austen’s best cads. Yet Sonneborn avoids some of the pitfalls of borrowing from Austen, using Persuasion as inspiration for loose plot structure and the interior lives of the characters but making the story entirely her own. She also seizes the opportunity to point to some of the most common arguments surrounding Austen and her belittlement as “women’s fiction” as utterly ludicrous. She even sends up modern retellings of classic novels with a subplot involving a vampiric adaptation of Jane Eyre. Like Austen, Sonneborn delivers a novel filled with a touching understanding of love and loss that probes some of our most vulnerable moments while also delivering a conclusion of the highest, squee-inducing order.
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