Autumn means lots of things, but most importantly for Hot Stuff, it means we can trade books on the beach for cozy reads snuggled under blankets (shhh, we’re pretending we don’t live in Southern California). It also brings a major milestone for this column: Next week marks the first anniversary of Hot Stuff. So happy birthday to us, and thanks to all of you who have stopped by every month for our top picks in romance-landia. We hope you enjoy spending time with these happily-ever-afters as much as we do.
This month’s selections offer a wide array of heroes, including football players, zookeepers, and vampire pirates (or vampirates!). There’s a healthy mix of angst, hilarity, and steaminess in the pages of all our picks, so read on for more.
By Alexa Martin
Review: Alexa Martin scores a touchdown of a debut with Intercepted, a witty rom-com set in the world of professional football players and their wives. Marlee Harper has been dating Chris Alexander since high school, doing her part as a WAG despite bitchy treatment from many other women for not having a ring on her finger. When she discovers Chris’ infidelity around the same time that former mind-blowing hook-up Gavin Pope comes into town as the new quarterback, Marlee’s life is upended as she tries to both find herself and form a new connection with a man she can’t resist. Martin is a hysterical writer, with a punchy, contemporary voice rife with pop culture references and belly-laugh-inducing hashtags. With Marlee, she has built an ambitious, self-confident woman who will inspire anyone looking for the inner strength to stand up for herself when the moment calls for it. Gavin is a hunky gift of a hero, tailor-made for readers who can’t resist a man in football pants (shout-out to Martin for calling particular emphasis to the general sexiness of that clothing item). Martin is married to a former NFL player, and she infuses her real-life experiences into everything from WAG lingo to the more sober realities of how trades, free agency, and CTE can affect not just players but the ones they love most. It’s this sense of insider knowledge that makes this sports romance sparklingly genuine. The drama between Marlee and Gavin feels slightly contrived and blown out of proportion, particularly given its rather abrupt resolution, which slightly lessens the delight of the happily-ever-after. And yet, Intercepted is so utterly charming, engrossing, and funny, it almost doesn’t matter. Reading Intercepted is like watching your football team win a blowout — there might not be a lot of emotional ups and downs, but overall, it’s still a pleasant, engaging experience. Spending time in Martin’s world is like having a heart-to-heart with your bestie, offering up plenty of moments for giggling with someone who just gets you, whether they’re trying to make you smile or build you up after a hard day. With its breezy sense of humor, you won’t be able to hide the grin this feel-good debut inspires.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Last Night With the Earl
By Kelly Bowen
Review: Award-winning author Kelly Bowen continues her Devils of Dover series with Last Night With the Earl. After Waterloo, Lord Eli Dawes was presumed dead, so when he returns to claim his inheritance unexpectedly and is discovered in the dead of night in Rose Hayward’s art studio, he leaves a lot of questions in his wake — not least of which is how Rose should handle her attraction to a man she believes once helped betray her. Bowen goes heavy on the angst here, never shying away from the emotional and physical damage her characters have faced. While historical romances set in this era have often ignored the effects of war, Bowen dives in, giving her hero an unsightly injury that has turned him from handsome duke to a man who believes his reflection is horrific. Dawes has conquered his PTSD in the years since Waterloo, but Bowen is still not afraid to take a hard look at the impact of war on our heroes. In contrast, Rose has suffered a devastating public humiliation, and Bowen similarly leans into the very real cost of reputation and gossipmongers on women’s lives in this time. With those high stakes, she builds a beautiful tale of two broken individuals who help each other find their way back to being whole. Rose and Dawes’ shared interest in art and painting leaps vividly off the page, and Bowen expertly crafts Rose’s skill as an artist and Dawes’ love of collecting as a powerful emotional through-line for them to build from. If you’re in any way a lover of Renaissance art, this book will feel unbearably romantic and sexy. Bowen’s ensemble offers a feminist character study in how to build a cast that is bursting with complex, nuanced women and men who are not only noble, but outright allies. Even her smallest supporting characters are engaging and well-drawn — if there’s not a future book featuring Ophelia and Lewis Linfield, I will be extremely dismayed. The only complaint is that for the vast emotional subtext she’s lent her characters, sometimes the biggest moments of conflict or reconciliation ring slightly hollow. Still, Last Night With the Earl pulses with a lush romanticism, and its central characters’ deep wounds give the text a palpable yearning that will sweep you up into Bowen’s world of compassionate souls who drop lines from Shakespeare and lose their s— at the sight of a Titian painting.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Wild on My Mind
By Laurel Kerr
Review: Laurel Kerr’s first book in the Where the Wild Hearts Are series is a quirky, heartwarming tale of love found in a local zoo. Katie Underwood is helping her father recover from a shooting, while attempting to restart her life as a freelance social media guru and graphic designer, when she runs into the last guy she ever wanted to see again — Bowie Wilson, her high school bully. A former foster kid, Bowie has long set aside his rebellious ways to become a single parent and keep his family zoo afloat — a zoo desperately in need of Katie’s creative marketing ideas. The tale is a sweet one, but Kerr maintains such an even-keeled writing style that even the biggest emotional moments fail to pack the punch they should. Given how horribly Bowie treated Katie in high school, it can be difficult to root for their happy ending — but Kerr does an admirable job of showing his growth, and the wounds he unexpectedly shares with Katie crucially soften him. A subplot about Katie’s blooming relationship with Bowie’s bullied daughter, Abby, also provides some much-needed emotional resonance. The real fuzzy-feeling-inducing stars of the book are the various animals that inhabit the Sagebrush Flats Zoo: the adorable cougar cubs whose Harry Potter-inspired names are a twinkly delight, the lovelorn camel Lulubelle, the curmudgeonly grizzly bear Frida, and the mischievous honey badger Fluffy. Kerr does something slightly offbeat, sprinkling in passages from Fluffy’s point of view, as the honey badger works to set Katie and Bowie up. It will depend on your love of animals and your mood whether you find this gratingly distracting or charmingly quirky. But that aside, the animals all make for winning supporting characters — in fact, I found myself wishing for their (and by extension, the zoo’s) happily-ever-after almost more than the romantic one. Kerr has built herself a delightful world to play in, with a motley assembly of animals you won’t be able to get enough of, even if her human characters occasionally leave something to be desired.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Vampires Like It Hot
By Lynsay Sands
Review: Many romance authors revel in angst, pushing characters into predicaments that inspire connection and empathy. And then there are those who just want to have a good time. With Vampires Like It Hot, Lynsay Sands offers up her 28th Argeneau novel, a vampire romance so outlandishly hilarious you’ll find yourself snorting with laughter. Jess is busy playing babysitter to her bratty cousin at her relative’s destination wedding when she inadvertently finds herself at sea with a crew of vampire pirates(!). She jumps overboard to swim to safety and unwittingly finds herself in the arms of Raffaele Notte, unable resist the chemistry between them (it helps that she doesn’t know he’s a vampire). Sands even cites her writing’s tendency to induce “uncontrollable fits of laughter” in her author bio, and her desire to help readers have a good time bursts off every page. Some of the scenarios, like a seafaring vampirate captain who uses sexual slang older than Shakespeare, or pleasure so intense it causes fainting spells, are ridiculous, but Sands revels in this and plays them for laughs. Both Jess and Raffaele are in the Dominican Republic for an island getaway, but it’s the readers who are granted the true escape with this bubbly, funny, engrossing confection of a novel. Paranormal romances are often laden with anxiety and dread, but Sands hits a refreshing comedic note in contrast, while still building a compelling mythology and landscape for her immortal heroes and villains. The piratical aspects lend the book an old-world charm, while providing tantalizing glimpses of island escapes to tempt any modern reader. Sands delivers a rip-roaring adventure with plenty of steamy interludes in a story that should make fans of even the most virulent anti-vampire readers. It’s hard to resist her witty dialogue, off-the-wall scenarios, sexy moments, and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, all of which combine for a deliciously fun romp in this absolutely bonkers read.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
One in a Million
By Lindsey Kelk
Review: Kelk’s delightful rom-com is a cozy read, as soul-warming as curling up with a cup of tea. It’s My Fair Lady for our times. Annie Higgins is a social media maven with a growing startup; competitive by nature, she accepts a bet to make a random stranger Instagram-famous in one month. But the task proves harder than anticipated when the stranger in question is social-media-averse historian Dr. Samuel Page — particularly when Annie starts falling for the considerate, funny man hidden under layers of insecurity and disregard for his appearance. Kelk may take the underlying Pygmalion story as her inspiration, but she improves upon it by significantly reducing the Higgins character’s narcissism and making the story about two people coming to appreciate each other’s imperfections, rather than forcing anyone into a box of “self-improvement” or “betterment.” Her prose reads like a breezy romantic comedy, easily carrying you away into Annie’s world of social media promotions, professional ambition, and deep-seated yearnings. Samuel Page is a dreamy, bookish hero, so wrapped up in the dead men who fascinate him that it takes some careful prodding to see what’s right in front of him. And yet, Kelk strikes a careful balance, making Page never boorish or inconsiderate, but merely oblivious — so good-natured you can forgive him for burrowing himself in his work and not bothering to come up for air until he’s dragged there. One quick note on an editorial decision here: Often when British books are brought to America, they’re sanitized of their Britishness, vocabulary and turns of phrase adjusted to make them more digestible. Here, Kelk’s Britishisms are left intact, blooming off every page and giving a distinct sense of place and space that makes this rather universal love story utterly specific and entertaining in its idiosyncrasies. Kelk’s voice shines through in what is, ultimately, a lighthearted, warm romance about the unlikely connections we forge because of, or really in spite of, the digital age.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥