Hot Stuff: June romance novels bring the summer heat
It’s beach season, which means you’re in need of a good book to enjoy under the summer sun. Lucky for you, June brings a cadre of sizzling hot romance titles that will bring on the summer heat whether you’re reading it stretched out on the sand or safely cool in an air-conditioned room. From author debuts (The Kiss Quotient) to stellar outings from the biggest names in the genre (Wicked and the Wallflower), June had no shortage of great romances to enjoy. Whether you’re looking for sheer escapism or romance that packs a much-needed feminist punch, there’s a title here for you.
This month, we also reviewed LGBTQ romance When Katie Met Cassidy, in a stand-alone review here.
Wicked and the Wallflower
By Sarah MacLean
There will likely always be those who condescend to and question the bona fides of romance as a literary genre, but author Sarah MacLean’s writing stands as a firm middle finger to all that. Her lyrical, elegant prose is literature with a capital L, full of rich, lush imagery that will stop any lover of words in their tracks. In Wicked and the Wallflower, she offers two sides of Londons — one that glitters but is not gold within the simpering Mayfair ballrooms, and another that tempts with its shadows and secrets within the gritty underworld of Covent Garden. Devil, a king of the Garden known as a “Bareknuckle Bastard,” is out for revenge against the brother who stole everything from him — and strange wallflower Felicity Faircloth seems the perfect bait with which to lay his trap. That is until he finds her brazen interest in the darkness and penchant for lock picking utterly irresistible. MacLean has always excelled at creating idiosyncratic, fascinating women, and Felicity is a worthy addition to her canon. She’s a girl who can’t help but continually find herself in the wrong place at the wrong time because of her desperate desire for more — more love, more adventure, more than what her world has offered young women. With a chameleonic cockney accent and a menacing walking cane, Devil is Mr. Hyde with the heart of Dr. Jekyll — a smoldering smuggler who uses his reputation and appearance to mask the kindness and vulnerability of his soul. Because Devil is not cruel or frightening but rather a product of his circumstances. He’s a man obsessed with protecting those he loves most at any cost. MacLean uses the metaphor of a maiden in a tower throughout, and she offers up a knockout fairy tale for modern audiences, one where the damsel in distress takes destiny into her own hands and claims her happily ever after with her equal. The novel is full of MacLean’s characteristic toe-curling chemistry, offering up steamy scenes in ice holds with enough heat to melt the ice within and the pages of the book. I’ll never be able to hear the Mary Poppins lyric “on the rooftops of London, coo, what a sight” the same way again thanks to MacLean’s use of said rooftops for a scene of explosively sexy proportions.
It’s impossible to overstate how subversive and subtly ferocious her novels are — her stalwart belief that men and women can exist in a world where they worship and adore each other as equals, where women’s pleasure is of the utmost importance, and where a wallflower and a gruff smuggler can find their hard-won happily ever after. MacLean’s books should be required reading for any who want to know what love as a partnership should look like. With her Washington Post column and her own recommendation website, MacLean is a stalwart champion of the genre, an author who recognizes the power of female desire being made explicitly political. Wicked and the Wallflower feels like a metaphor for her career — an embrace of temptation and leaning into darkness for the sake of revealing the untold pleasures and culturally revolutionary ideas lurking there. She is, without question, the elegantly fuming, utterly intoxicating queen of historical romance.
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It Takes Two
By Jenny Holiday
In book two of her “Bridesmaids Behaving Badly” series, Jenny Holiday turns up the heat and the charm for a summer read more satisfying than a poolside popsicle. Wendy Liu has always had a thing for her best friend Jane’s brother, Noah Denning — that is when she’s not still stewing over the time he broke her heart. When Wendy is named Jane’s maid of honor, she’s forced to spend more time with Noah than she has in years, and as the two compete to throw the best bachelor(ette) party, they find themselves unable to resist each other. With Wendy and Noah, Holiday has crafted two warm, wounded individuals who have been waiting their whole lives for the other to realize they’re perfect for each other. The details of her character’s lives — from Wendy and Noah’s distaste for Jane’s Josh Groban fandom (justice for Josh!) to the fact that neither Wendy nor Noah has been able to find a satisfactory partner in the years since their parting — offer a rich tapestry for the two to build their romance upon. Holiday delivers buckets of witty banter that will leave you breathless and wanting more. Wendy and Noah’s exchanges read like a delicious head-to-head between two evenly matched opponents. Their sexual frustration (and chemistry) sparks off the page, and I found myself staying up past my bedtime to keep reading just for the hope that they might finally consummate their desires with even a kiss. When they finally do make good on that electric chemistry, it sizzles. The story is set against a wedding, as Jane veers wildly from her “low-key” plans to an increasingly ornate and demanding vision for her nuptials — though to be honest, she’s so sweet about the whole thing that you can’t ever view her as a bridezilla. Holiday masterfully maintains her supporting cast, from the other bridesmaids and groomsmen to the pivotal character of Wendy’s only surviving family member — her Aunt Mary. Yet their story (and the central wedding) never threaten to overwhelm the perfectly pitched romance between two people who desperately need each other in spite of spending nearly 15 years running away. Holiday charms with an irresistible romantic comedy that effortlessly captures the wounds of youthful heartbreak and the exhilarating, risky prospect of revisiting the one who got away. It’s hard to imagine finding a more delightful summer escape.
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By Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan
Successful solo authors Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan have teamed up to write a centuries-spanning romance that is The Da Vinci Code meets Possession. Brenna Anderson has built herself a carefully ordered life with no strings attached as a Harvard professor, but when she makes a stunning discovery related to the mysterious Siren paintings, she hops on a plane to Europe to begin an adventure that will send her on the path to uncovering one of the greatest mysteries in the art world. The only man standing in her way is professional art hunter, Fitch Wilder, a rugged ne’er-do-well who Brenna finds frustratingly attractive. As the two reluctantly partner on their hunt for the Siren’s true identity, they begin to fall for each other while simultaneously uncovering a love story that has stood the test of time. The book divides its time between Brenna and Fitch’s journey in the present and the true history of the woman known as both the Siren and the Swan, a former courtesan who found a new life and love after being shipwrecked on a Catalan shore. The modern-day passages pulse with far more heat and immediacy than the more languorous trips to the past where the “Swan” meanders through her personal history and the moments that brought her to a rocky castle and a handsome artist. Additionally, the structure of the novel eliminates some of the mystery as we discover the truth of the past before Brenna and Fitch do. It’s hard not to feel that the novel would have been more successful if it told the story only through Brenna and Fitch’s eyes, though the sections set in the past certainly offer up beautiful prose and language that comes alive with the brilliance of the paintings at the novel’s heart. The romance is engrossing and Brenna and Fitch are a devilish, delightful match, but the mystery that brings them together, unfortunately, never feels as exciting to the reader as it does to the two characters chasing it.
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Switch and Bait
By Ricki Schultz
With Switch and Bait, Ricki Schultz delivers up a wry, audacious romance that is perfect for our contemporary moment. Blanche Carter is great at setting other people up — so good, in fact, that she runs a consulting business overseeing online dating profiles for her eligible female clients and helping them snag beaus. Blanche herself is less interested in dating, preferring to keep her walls up and throwing herself into her work at a local bookstore and other people’s dating lives. Things start to go awry, however, when an old one-night stand, who just happens to be her best friend’s brother-in-law, matches with her newest client. Schultz builds crackling chemistry between Blanche and Henry, writing sparkling, irreverent banter that is so good you might be tempted to steal it for your own online dating one-liners. Their attraction is palpable from the first pages and though there are moments where they feel utterly long for each other, you feel the same irresistible pull as the characters as they move towards their happily ever after. The novel is set in D.C. where Henry works for a conservative politician — and to be honest, though he makes impassioned and well-penned pleas for his worldview, it can feel a little like the hot-headed liberal Blanche and the staunchly conservative Henry seem like a match doomed to fail. In such a polarizing time, it’s hard to buy into the notion that love could prevail with such a political chasm between two people. But it’s a testament to Schultz’s writing that you throw up your hands and go along for this sexy, witty ride in spite of it.
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The Kiss Quotient
By Helen Hoang
With The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang bursts out of the gate with a sparkling debut of a novel that’s filled with empathy, charm, and a romance as unique and idiosyncratic as its main character. Stella Lane has high functioning autism (a similar diagnosis to one Hoang received herself through discoveries she made while researching the book), and she hires hunky professional escort Michael Phan to help her get more comfortable in the bedroom. As Stella begins to appreciate the finer points of foreplay, she also starts to fall for Michael and his understanding, sensitive ways that make her feel for the first time that she might be able to maintain (and enjoy) a relationship. Hoang writes of Stella’s particularities, from her repetitive finger tapping to her hyper-sensitivity to crowds and clothing seams/tags, with a crisp empathy and understanding of her own diagnosis, painting a complex portrait of a neuro-divergent woman who is so much more than the label she is terrified of revealing. So many great romances are about two people finding the perfection in the other’s imperfections, finding a partner who views your idiosyncrasies and all the things that make you cringe about yourself as something that makes you not only worth loving but all the more lovable. Hoang trades on that trope with an incisive wit and emotionality that makes for a riveting, compulsively readable romance that brims with feeling and warmth. It’s impossible not to fall for Stella and Michael, and their heart-tugging fears that if they reveal their true selves, they might somehow be found lacking. Because their relationship begins as a purely physical exercise, it should be noted that Hoang also crafts crackling love scenes where compassion gives way to passion full stop with an electric chemistry that threatens to singe the pages. Stella loves math more than anything, and The Kiss Quotient is the equivalent of an elegant equation — a beautiful assemblage of parts that in its simplicity hints at more profound forces at work in the universe.
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