Hot Stuff: May romance novels spice up YA and capitalize on royal wedding fever
May was a hot month for romance with the real-life wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle making the whole world believe in happy endings. A new royal release offered up a fun YA entry (Royals) for the month and the YA romance front had multiple notable releases with Always Never Yours also hitting shelves.
Meanwhile, as always, a slew of historical titles arrived to steam up the past. All of them delved into the importance of finding one’s own voice (and how to use it considerately) as a key component for romantic happiness – something we suspect will serve Meghan Markle well in months to come as well. With the royal wedding in the rearview mirror, here are our five picks for May.
By Rachel Hawkins
With Royals, Rachel Hawkins offers the perfect antidote to the glut of gossipy tabloid reporting surrounding the royal wedding. Instead of focusing on the bride/soon-to-be-princess, Hawkins chooses the bride’s sister, 16-year-old Daisy Winters, as her subject. With her mermaid-red hair and desire to attend a fan convention in Key West, Daisy is far from fitting in with the outwardly prim and proper royal family of Scotland. She finds things even more complicated when she’s sent to spend the summer abroad to try to help protect her from paparazzi – particularly because Miles, the official “courtier” in charge of minding her is both pompous and inconveniently intriguing. In this YA romp, Hawkins makes brilliant use of royal tropes, helping to remind readers that being a princess (or connected to the royal family) is more stress and duty than it is glitz and glamour. Daisy is a sarcastic, lovable smart aleck struggling to do the best she can while remaining true to herself. She bears the DNA of other fictional teenage royals, most notably Meg Cabot’s Princess Mia of The Princess Diaries, and her hilarious, winsome personality makes for an engrossing and delightful royal romp. Hawkins writes with an easy, winking tone that invites readers along for the ride – and she’s a master at making her characters feel like the wisecracking BFFs you always wanted. What’s more – her witty, insightful descriptions of everything from an Ascot-like race to the hunky hero leap off the page with a humorous vivacity. When she describes Miles as “a romantic poet who decided to join a boy band,” you know precisely what he looks like – all irresistible cheekbones and floppy hair. It’s this enjoyable take on her characters and settings, paired with its realistic look at the perils of being a royal in the age of social media, that makes the book a crowning achievement as delectable and warming as a perfect cup of tea. If Meghan and Harry are a modern day fairy tale, this is the pitch perfect teen movie of your dreams.
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By Vanessa Riley
Vanessa Riley crafts a highly historically accurate Regency interracial romance heavy on plotting and crisp detail. Shy textile heiress Ester Croome is looking for a way out from an undesirable arranged marriage when her best friend’s newspaper advertisement for a groom leads her into the arms of Arthur Bex, a renowned Shakespearean actor whom Ester has mooned over for years. Ester decides the best way to evade an unwanted marriage is to make a new one and decides to elope with Bex. Ester is black, the wealthy heiress of a textile magnate who still finds many social barriers closed to her in 19th century London. Bex is not only a famous actor, but also a devoted abolitionist. The novel delves into serious issues surrounding race, the specter of slavery (and its impact on interracial relationships), and more — all of which is enhanced by Riley’s painstaking research and inclusion of actual historical events and figures. Quite a lot of dramatic events happen in the novel and Ester and Bex are both admirable, lovable protagonists. Yet, the writing never really manages to fully grip you. A tale so rife with everything from a fly-by-night elopement to a factory explosion to a heated abolition rally should be quite the page-turner, but Riley writes with the levelheaded pragmatism of her heroine, making for a novel that canters along at an even pace but never really rises to swoon-worthy levels. It’s a compelling read for its historical aspects, and the novel particularly finds its heart in scenes between Ester and her parents, who are struggling to protect their daughter from some of the harsher realities they have faced. Yet, if you’re looking for a romance to get totally engrossed in, the amenable, even-keeled natures of the main characters on the page (in spite of their deep convictions) may leave something to be desired.
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By Emily Wibberly and Austin Siegemund-Broka
Emily Wibberly and Austin Siegemund-Broka have taken their own love story as high school sweethearts who fell for each other over a mutual passion for Shakespeare and channeled it into an inventive, charming, insightful tale. Megan Harper is convinced she’s doomed to remain the “girl before” – the imperfect romance that comes before a guy finds the love of his life, à la Rosaline in Romeo and Juliet. When Megan is cast as Juliet in her high school’s production, she’s certain it will be a disaster because she can’t relate to a heroine who famously died for love. Along the way, she also befriends playwright Owen Okita, a shy, quiet boy who begins to meet with Megan for inspiration about a play he’s writing about Rosaline. Throughout the novel, Megan faces many romantic ups and downs, revisiting old flames, crushing on a sexy stagehand, and more before acknowledging the more than friendly feelings she develops for Owen. But Megan is only able to find romantic fulfillment by also learning to recognize that she’s not replaceable and turning away from the defeatist attitude she’s built to protect herself. Wibberly and Siegemund-Broke delve into the world of high school theater with aplomb, nailing petty backstage drama and how quickly it passes, as well as the highs and lows of teenage friendship. They also deliver an incisive, sympathetic view of teenage self-doubt and how easy it is to find one’s confidence eked away by decisions utterly outside your control. Their love for Shakespeare shines through, lending both witty moments to the Bard-inspired town of their characters and a genuine, pulsing passion for his writing that unites the characters on both intellectual and romantic planes. Through Megan’s approach to Juliet, they offer a fresh interpretation of the centuries-old play, which shines new light on their characters as well. Only through the power of theater (and knowing Juliet) can Megan break down her own walls and learn to risk getting hurt for the sake of something real. The book is a love letter to high school drama classes, Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet most especially), the power of friendship, first love, and the empowering act of recognizing one’s own self-worth. Every page bursts with humor, squee-inducing romance, and an abiding sense of the deep love and joy of its two writers. Designed to induce both heart-warming bursts of happiness and a sense of recognition and pangs of empathy for Megan’s struggles, Always Never Yours is a necessary, feel-good addition to the YA canon.
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By Vivienne Lorret
With How to Forget a Duke, Vivienne Lorret combines the matchmaking, impulsive tendencies of Jane Austen’s Emma with the memory loss mysteries of the Jason Bourne franchise. As one of the three sisters overseeing the Bourne Matrimonial Agency, Jacinda Bourne is determined to find ideal matches for her clients, even if it means sneaking in to Duke’s houses to ferret out their secrets. The Duke of Rydstrom wants a wealthy, land-holding bride, nothing more. But when Jacinda washes up in his village with amnesia, Crispin Rydstrom has no choice but to take her in and finds himself drawn to her in spite of his frustrations with her boundless curiosity and inability to follow orders. The tale is a sexy page-turner, as the question of Jacinda’s memory and Rydstrom’s legitimate need for a large dowry keep you guessing until the last chapters. Jacinda is a delight – an impulsive, inquisitive meddler who possesses all the charm and good intentions of Austen’s Emma with just a touch more self-awareness (even in spite of her amnesia). Crispin is as alpha as they come – a glowering duke who finds his protective instincts blossoming into love in spite of his dedication to his aristocratic duties. There’s certainly nothing here that skirts the boundaries of non-consensual interaction, but it can feel a bit troubling at times given the heroine’s memory loss and Crispin’s inherently forceful nature (Lorret’s descriptions of his shoulders are a paean to broad-chested hunks everywhere). The novel takes some time to find its footing, but once Crispin’s more vulnerable, thoughtful side begins to shine and Jacinda embeds herself in his village and his heart, you can’t help but root for these two stubborn, persistent characters to fall for each other. Extra flair is added by the delight of Rydstrom’s ward Sybil, whose tragic backstory combines with her hopeless romanticism and sweet nature to make her instantly lovable. Ferret’s first in the Misadventures in Matchmaking series is a bit sluggish on the uptake, but the slow burn of the romance in the back half of the novel draws you in and leaves a satisfied smile on your face.
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By Amanda Quick
Amanda Quick (one of the author Jayne Ann Krentz’s three pseudonyms) returns to the world of Burning Cove – a 1930s California seaside town that serves as a playground to the stars – with The Other Lady Vanishes. After escaping from a private sanitarium, Adelaide Blake tries to re-establish a normal life for herself in Burning Cove, but the arrival of several Hollywood power players and a slew of murders drag her into a mystery that might have more ties to her mysterious past than she realizes. Along the way, Adelaide meets gruff, protective Jake Truett, a recently widowed businessman who has a soft spot for Adelaide and her slightly jumpy nature. The novel leans more heavily into mystery than it does romance, but it still provides a delicious central relationship between Adelaide and Jake who feel like they’ve sprung to life straight from a 1930s B-movie starring the likes of a tough but romantic guy like Dana Andrews and a dame cut from the same cloth as Lauren Bacall or Mary Astor. That’s the biggest delight of the book – it feels like Quick found a script to one of those film noir delights and spun it into gold, so genuine is the atmosphere she crafts. Within a few chapters, you can’t escape the sensation that you’ve fallen back in time into a black-and-white picture rife with mystery, murder, and a chemistry that develops in spite of (or maybe because of) the mayhem around the two central lovers. Those films crackle with a blend of clever dialogue and a setting that feels like it could only belong to a time long gone. It’s this mix of new and old, the sense that you’re encountering something that is crisply contemporary wrapped in a nostalgic, timeless package. If sometimes the romance leaves a little to be desired, Quick conjures up a celluloid world that will be catnip to fans of that era evoking the sensation it was plucked straight from the Warner Bros. vault.
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