Hot Stuff: April romance novels offer a wide range of adventures, including choose-your-own
Anyone who’s ever seen Bambi knows that spring is a keen time for romance — a season when couples pair off in Twitter-pated affection. April romance novels brought a heap of this sense of the freshness of spring, with the blush of first love in both historical (Marry in Scandal) and contemporary (Now a Major Motion Picture) stories alike. What’s more, several books broke new ground in the genre, from choose-your-own-adventure titles to a Regency-era romance with a gender-queer heroine. Read on for more on EW’s take on five April romance releases.
My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel
By Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris
The tropes of the romance novel get merged with the choose-your-own-adventure novel in this unique interactive take on romance writing. The reader “plays” as the heroine, a young penniless woman trying to make her way in Regency-era London. Adventures range from intrigue with the haughty Sir Benedict Granville, an epic archaeological expedition in Egypt with Lady Evangeline Youngblood, a tryst in the Scottish highlands with Captain Angus MacTaggart, and a Gothic stint as a governess under the watchful eye of Lord Garraway Craven. The book leans perhaps more heavily on literary classics than it does on straight-up romance novels, with Sir Benedict being a direct descendant of Mr. Darcy, Lord Garraway Craven owing a debt to both Lord Byron and Mr. Rochester, and Captain Angus MacTaggart sharing more than just his ginger hair with Outlander’s Jamie Fraser. The book is an enticing romp, and it will certainly allow historical romance readers to live out their fantasies on the page. If you’ve ever read a romance novel and been frustrated by a choice a heroine makes, this book is a chance to stake out your own narrative. But, in places, it feels less like a tongue-in-cheek nod to the tropes of the genre than it does a slightly condescending send-up of romance. Ripped bodices abound, and the frequent intimate scenes are rife with talk of throbbing body parts and more. The truth is, the romance genre has long surpassed this. Though romance readers and writers have a healthy sense of humor about the genre, it feels like a step backward to have a book invest so heavily in the worst stereotypes (especially when many of them have long since stopped being remotely true of the genre, if they ever were). All in all, it’s a fun, engaging concept to find yourself calling the shots in a romance novel, but it needs to treat the genre as more than a punch line because sometimes it feels more like an improv sketch with a romance novel theme than a genuine “adventure.”
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Now a Major Motion Picture
By Cori McCarthy
In this YA romance tale, Cori McCarthy makes ample use of fan culture, fantasy novels, and the love-hate relationship individuals can have with pop culture phenomena to craft a feminist coming-of-age story. Iris Thorne is the granddaughter of M.E. Thorne, a famous fantasy author who is touted as the feminist answer to J.R.R. Tolkien – only Iris hates her roots, knows little about her grandmother, and refuses to read the books spurred on by her father’s own disdain for them. Everything changes when Iris accompanies her brother Ryder on a trip to the Irish set of a film adaptation of her grandmother’s novels, and she meets the charming lead actor Eamon O’Brien. McCarthy writes movingly of family secrets, barely concealed wounds, and the ever-relatable youthful struggle to understand the world and our place in it. Iris is as much on a journey to find herself and discover the power of her grandmother’s words as she is on a romantic adventure. Eamon is adorable and fulfills the “geek boy who is more attractive than he realizes” trope in a way that will provide immediate catnip to devoted YA and romance readers alike. He’s the perfect combo of emerging movie star and under-appreciated nerd that proves irresistible to both readers and Iris. But beyond that, in Iris and her relationship to her grandmother’s novels, McCarthy strives to tell a story about female roles in Hollywood and fantasy fiction. Some of the plot points and passages intended to be from M.E. Thorne’s books fall flat and try too hard to live up to their fictional roots as the heir apparent to Tolkien, Pullman, and Rowling. However, the emotions behind the novels and the platform they offer for Iris to discover truths about herself and the realities of grief, loss, hope, creativity, and courage offer moving examinations of questions of legacy. Iris and Cate, the director of the Thorne-inspired films, have to live up to an impossible legacy – expected to provide fans all the answers and act as a saving grace for female directors of blockbuster films. McCarthy offers astute analysis of the harsh realities of Hollywood and the unfair expectations placed upon women in the business in particular, while also delivering a hopeful tale of what it means to stand your ground and learn to simply be enough for yourself in order to be enough for the world at large.
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Marry in Scandal
By Anne Gracie
With the second entry in her “A Marriage of Convenience” Series, Anne Gracie delivers a charming, entirely enchanting yarn. Lady Lily Rutherford is a kindly young woman who dreams of marrying for love, while carrying one major secret – she can’t read. When she is abducted and faces imminent scandal, the dashing Edward Galbraith agrees to a marriage of convenience to save her reputation. Galbraith may be the one who comes to Lily’s rescue in multiple ways, but she is the one who truly saves him – helping him recover from the guilt and trauma of the Napoleonic wars. Gracie crafts a witty and engaging Regency tale, with addictive passages of adventure paired with heartwarming romantic interludes. Lily is irresistibly sweet as a heroine, while still possessing a hearty amount of gumption and self-possession. Galbraith feels a bit more removed and unknowable than our heroine – this not only feeds the intrigue between him and Lily, but makes him more mysterious and romantic overall. While some romance novels smolder, this is a tale of a different nature – a confection that brims with kindness and heartfelt sincerity, which will fill you with a warm, fuzzy feeling all the way to the final page. If you need a happily-ever-after that’s sweet instead of sexy, you can’t do much better than Anne Gracie who offers her share of daring escapes, stolen kisses, and heartfelt romance in a tale that carries the effervescent charm of the best Disney fairy-tales.
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Unmasked by the Marquess
By Cat Sebastian
Cat Sebastian is known for her queer historical romance novels, and with Unmasked by the Marquess she deviates from her traditional modus operandi of male/male relationships to tell a story of a grumpy bi-sexual marquess undone by the charms of the gender queer Robert Selby, a.k.a. Robin a.k.a. Charity Church. Robin, a pet name that Alistair de Lacey bestows upon Selby which comes to represent her truest self, has taken up the identity of her former employer (and good friend) and found that she feels most herself in men’s clothing. The romantic beats here are fairly traditional with wooing, recalcitrance, and a happy ending. But, the conflict between the couple is one that is utterly new and refreshing for the genre. Robin refuses to go back to parading in women’s weeds and the name Charity Church – she only feels herself in breeches, hessian boots, and waistcoats. It is a journey of discovery for Alistair as he struggles to understand why Robin cannot simply marry him and live as a marchioness – he has to come to value and accept her true self before they can both find bliss in each other’s arms. The tale is a perfect fit for the romance genre, which is already heavily knit up in questions of identity and love coming via seeing people for who they truly are (and allowing them to live wholeheartedly as such). Sebastian masters the plotting and emotions of an individual coming to grips with her gender queer identity, while also not falling into the trap of melodrama or maudlin after-school special. Here, there is no hysteria or outrage at Robin’s identity – those who love her and value her merely come to accept her as she is, understanding how her plot came to be and continuing to support her when she realizes this is a life she chooses beyond mere financial expediency for her loved ones. Women dressing as men for status, protection, etc. is an age-old trope employed by countless writers over the centuries, but Sebastian dares to take it a step further and have her characters embrace that identity as something more profound and essential than mere disguise. The novel raises intriguing questions about gender identity, while also providing a more than ample guide to any struggling to comprehend shifting understandings of gender (acceptance and love are all that are asked of you). It’s also a lovely romance, perhaps just not quite as intoxicating and engaging as some of Sebastian’s other work.
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Pretending He’s Mine
By Mia Sosa
We’ve all had that grade school crush we lusted after – whether it was our lab partner or our big brother’s best friend. Mia Sosa delivers wish fulfillment with off-the-charts sparks in Pretending He’s Mine, pairing up Ashley Williamson and hotshot Hollywood agent Julian Hart. Ashley has had a crush on Julian since she was in high school – the smoking hot BFF of her older brother Carter and now also his agent. The pair fear damaging personal and professional relationships if they give in to their attraction, but an emergency living situation and the idea to fake a relationship at a family reunion leaves the two weak at the knees with desire for each other. Both Julian and Ashley spend a lot of time running from each other and the things they really want in life – bogged down by fear that they won’t be good enough or will disappoint others. Their chemistry pushes them to realize they can’t be good for each other if they don’t find their own footing first. Sometimes their self-doubts can suck the air out of the proceedings. Despite the fact that their parallel arcs are necessary for a satisfying happily-ever-after, the plot can ground to a halt as they struggle to find their way forward. Other times though, like when Ashley finally gives into her musical aspirations, the moments truly sing. Any plot stalls are made up for by the frequent steamy interludes and imaginings between Julian and Ashley – some of them are so hot they seem liable to set your sheets on fire.
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