Hot Stuff: July romance novels tackle tricky tropes
Few genres love (and excel at) tropes like romance: From enemies to lovers, to friends to lovers, to accidental pregnancies, to brother’s best friends, and more, there are endless relationship setups that romance authors revisit again and again.
One of the hallmarks of the genre is how inventively each author tackles these well-worn tropes — how they put their unique spin and voice on a familiar plot arc. This month’s crop of releases brings several tropes that could read as problematic in the #MeToo landscape — including forced proximity, kidnapping, and taboo love with a foster brother — but for the most part, the authors tackle the story lines with wit, ingenuity, and an uncanny understanding of how to sidestep potential land mines. Here are our six romance selections for July.
The Duke Buys a Bride
By Sophie Jordan
Sophie Jordan continues her Rogue Files series with The Duke Buys a Bride, a tale of a marriage of (in)convenience that becomes something more. Alyse Bell has a plan for her life: When her current name-only husband puts her on the auction block, her childhood friend Yardley will bid for her and offer them both a life she’s dreamed of. But when Yardley doesn’t show, Alyse is rescued from a potentially miserable new marriage by Marcus, the Duke of Autenberry, who bids for her in outrage. With Alyse, Jordan crafts a fiery, lovable heroine who craves more affection and opportunity than life has given her. The author matches fire with fire, offering the feisty Alyse an equally intense alpha hero in the form of Marcus — a man who rivals My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins for disagreeableness in the early chapters. As they travel to Marcus’ home, the two begin to feel an inevitable attraction to each other, fueled by the frequent necessity of sharing a bed. The bedroom scenes are Jordan’s forte, with the overwhelming desire of the characters blazing off the page. Despite the historical accuracy, it is very difficult to get past the problematic nature of Marcus and Alyse’s meeting. Jordan works hard to make Alyse the instigator, weaving in passages of enthusiastic consent and making it clear the romance is something Alyse yearns for as she breaks down Marcus’ walls. However, it doesn’t change the fact that for much of the book, Alyse is still essentially Marcus’ property, complete with a bill of sale. Historical romance often calls upon us as readers to see a romance plot as an exception to the grim realities of women’s past lives (a fact which often makes a happily-ever-after all the richer in its rewards). However, sometimes the realities are so grim, so knit up with questions of power and patriarchy, that it feels nearly impossible to look past them to find a happy ending. Jordan takes an admirable stab at it with Alyse and Marcus, who are vivid, fierce individuals. The central romance is a scorcher, but its flames are dampened by Alyse’s status as chattel, which makes Marcus’ noble intentions fall a bit short.
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By Lori Foster
Lori Foster’s Cooper’s Charm offers two romances for the price of one. After becoming the victim of a vicious robbery and assault, Phoenix Rose needs to get away: She takes a post as a landscaper at camping resort, Cooper’s Charm, and immediately finds herself attracted to her new boss, Cooper. Cooper has suffered his fair share of loss, but Phoenix might just be the woman to reawaken his dormant heart. When Phoenix’s sister Ridley shows up, things get even more complicated when she forms an immediate bond with the sexy scuba instructor, Baxter. The story is a heart-warming tale of four broken people whose affection and care for one another helps them to heal in myriad ways. Foster crafts real, believable bonds between all her characters, building up a world of camp employees who feel like the close-knit cast of characters you only ever see in movies like Dirty Dancing. The plot comes with several doses of intrigue as Phoenix continues to fear for her life while trying to recover from her anxiety and PTSD. But mostly, it’s a sweet tale of four lost people finding themselves and each other, with a heavy dollop of empathy and charm. Foster’s particular gifts lie in her strong character portraits, from protagonists like vulnerable Phoenix and defensively sarcastic Ridley to supporting characters like wise-ass Daron and warm Maris. Once you check in to Cooper’s Charm, you’ll find yourself wanting to spend your whole summer at the resort surrounded by this friendly, funny group. Foster also knows how to turn up the heat, delivering numerous steamy passages that crackle with chemistry and build essential connections between the characters. Cooper’s Charm is a bubbly summer escape, and beyond that, a heartwarming look at the healing power of family — both the ones we are given and those we create.
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Scoring the Player’s Baby
By Naima Simone
With the latest in her WAGS series, Naima Simone scores a sultry, emotional touchdown. Kim Matlock is still nursing her broken heart after a divorce from her philandering NFL player husband, so relationships, especially ones with professional football players, are off limits. When she meets Ronin Palamo and sparks fly, she agrees to one night with him, no strings attached, not even his last name. Things quickly get more complicated when she discovers she’s pregnant. With Ronin and Kim, Simone delivers two heartbreakingly real, fascinating characters — individuals who have long kept their hearts behind glass to prevent them from breaking. Ronin is a smoking-hot hero with a body so killer it will leave readers weak at the knees, but it’s his big heart that makes him so irresistible. His determination to do the right thing combined with his empathy and capacity for love make him extra swoon-worthy, especially for football lovers. Who wouldn’t want this wide receiver with the man bun (and pecs!) of Jason Momoa, but the secret soft side of the most squee-worthy rom-com heroes? In contrast, Kim is all hard edges, behind a wall of protection to prevent further damage to her already wounded heart. Simone expertly balances her inner vulnerability with her take-no-prisoners approach to her work and life. With these characters, Simone offers the man you want and the woman you want to be. The book opens with explosive chemistry and bedroom scenes that are off-the-charts sexy, then layers in growing attraction, affection, and connection between its characters. While the early segments of the book had me fanning myself, the final chapters brought me to tears with pitch-perfect use of grand romantic gestures. Here, the electric chemistry between the characters gives way to something deeper and more profound, opening up both the reader and the characters on the page to a more vulnerable experience. Great romances always feature characters securing a hard-won happily-ever-after, but it’s rare to find two people who deserve it this much, whose happiness on the page has the capacity to reduce you to a puddle of quivering emotions. The book is about a one-night stand that becomes something more, and it takes the reader on that same emotional journey with its astonishing calibration of erotic passages and deeply felt romanticism. What’s more, it takes the trope of accidental pregnancy and imbues it with an emotionality that feels genuine and never melodramatic. Football lovers know the joy of a perfect pass — the arc and beauty of the ball as it flies through the air, leaving you a little breathless until it lands safely in the arms of a receiver. Scoring the Player’s Baby elongates that sensation before soaring to its romantic, tear-jerking, game-winning conclusion.
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Marry Me by Sundown
By Johanna Lindsey
Johanna Lindsey is a stalwart of the romance genre, penning sweeping historical romances everywhere from Viking outposts to Regency England to the Old West. She offers up her third book in the Callahan-Warren series with Marry Me By Sundown. Violet Mitchell has spent her formative years in England learning to be a proper lady, but when her brothers summon her home to Philadelphia on the verge of financial ruin, she sets out to find her father and his silver mine in 1880s Montana. There, Violet is kidnapped by Morgan Callahan, her father’s partner who believes she is an actress sent by a rival to ferret out the location of his mine. The two work their way from animosity to warm regard to something more sensual as Violet hunts for a way to save her family from dire financial straits. Lindsey has been writing a long time, and knows well what her readers respond to, but as a result her tone, phrasing, and storytelling can feel a bit old-fashioned. Violet is a fierce heroine, determined to strike out on her own multiple times to protect her and her family’s best interests, while Morgan is an appealingly taciturn hero, possessing all the ruggedness you’d expect from a rancher-turned-silver miner in the Old West. Lindsey only rarely includes chapters from Morgan’s point of view, which makes the prose a bit stilted and leaves you wishing his narration would either be sprinkled more liberally throughout or not at all. Despite this, Lindsey crafts a Western yarn with all the adventure and action of a Golden Age Hollywood film, taking her characters through sweeping locations like the crags of mountain peaks and Big Sky territory. It’s her setting that particularly shines through, giving her characters a lush background to find their happily-ever-afters in, even if you wish they had a bit more emotional depth. Those who already love Lindsey will likely find this hits their reading sweet spot: She offers up a thrilling adventure filled with outlaws, gunfights, and more, but leaves something to be desired in the relationship development between Morgan and Violet.
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Wrong in All the Right Ways
By Tiffany Brownlee
As classical literature goes, Wuthering Heights is perhaps one of the most problematic sources for inspiration for a romance, given that it has no happily-ever-after and details a chronically toxic relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy. It’s a testament to Tiffany Brownlee’s skills as a writer then that she manages to leap from its Gothic pages to her deeply felt, smoldering tale of forbidden teen love in Wrong In All the Right Ways. Emma Ellenburg is your classic high school over-achiever, who has skipped two grades to become senior at 16 and comes home to overbearing but loving parents. When her family decides to take in foster kid Dylan McAndrews, she fears being replaced in her parents’ hearts — what she doesn’t anticipate is losing her own heart to the troubled boy with amber eyes. The two fall hard and fast for each other, but must keep their relationship secret to prevent their taboo romance from endangering Dylan’s chances of being adopted. Brownlee writes with all the breathless excitement and excruciating longing of a first love, further complicated by the forbidden nature of their romance. She also weaves in a carefully calibrated love triangle with another boy, a relationship that begins as a way for Emma to hide her love for Dylan from her parents and classmates, but develops into something more. Brownlee keenly understands the vagaries of teenage love, both its all-consuming intensity and the power of suddenly finding yourself the target of male interest after feeling invisible, making for one of the most believable love triangles on the page in ages. Emma keeps a journal (at first for a school assignment) in which she confesses her inner hopes and fears to Wuthering Heights’ Catherine, and it’s a pitch-perfect take on how teenagers can both love a work of fiction and twist its inner themes. Those passages feel like Brownlee reaching across the literary ether to speak to Emily Bronte in some communal understanding of Gothic angst that still pervades and resonates in the lives of teenagers. The back third of the novel occasionally veers into after-school-special territory, preventing the book from ascending to true heights of greatness. And yet, Brownlee never loses sight of the raw fury and emotion at the heart of Emma’s pain before granting her characters a happily-ever-after that Cathy and Heathcliff could only attain in death.
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Three Months to Forever
By Hudson Lin
Hudson Lin adds to Dreamspinner’s World of Love series with a novella that takes readers to Hong Kong. Ben is on a three-month work assignment there when he meets suave and intriguing Sai, a lawyer with whom he feels an instant physical chemistry. As the two make good on their sizzling connection, their relationship grows deeper as Sai shows Ben the sights and wonders of the city, while Ben becomes a much-needed support as the pressures of Sai’s job mount. Against their better judgment and a mess of complications including the morally questionable requirements of Sai’s occupation, the two fall in love — but can a whirlwind destination romance amount to anything more? Lin writes with a precise blend of steamy fervor and emotional yearning that builds a strong and believable bond between two characters in a short amount of time. Certainly romances have escalated on the page more quickly than three months’ time, but the short-form nature of the novella does leave one wanting more of the developing attraction and feeling between the two leads. Much of the relationship’s escalation is conveyed through physical attraction, which Lin writes with crackling immediacy. The backstory of the two characters is also intriguing, but because everything must happen here at a breakneck pace, we don’t get as much of a chance to dig into Sai’s past — why he’s caught between his own moral beliefs and his devotion to his parents. It’s never a bad thing to want more from a book, especially when it’s so brief, and it’s a testament to Lin’s writing that she both manages to craft a believable connection between Sai and Ben and leave readers hungry for more. The novella is a romantic morsel: tantalizing and delicious in so many ways, but a little too light of a snack to satiate one’s appetite.
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