By Maureen Lee Lenker
March 30, 2019 at 12:05 PM EDT
Delacorte Press; Avon; Carina Press

In romance, we often refer to the sub-genre of second chance romance when the story follows a couple rekindling a relationship after a first failed attempt. However, there’s another type of second chances — the kind that comes when life and its various tribulations have so beat you down that you’re reluctant to give love another shot. For a wide variety of heroes and heroines this month, ranging from older Victorian women to college-bound teens to the owner of an Afro-Caribbean food truck, that’s exactly the type of romance on tap for March — a type of love that’s often more satisfying because, as in the pages here, it arises from hard work on one’s self and a willingness to open yourself up to a frightening level of vulnerability.

Carina Press

American Dreamer
By Adriana Herrera
Review: With American Dreamer, Adriana Herrera positions herself as a fresh and vital new voice in romance. This richly woven tale follows Nesto Vasquez, a Dominican Republican immigrant who now calls New York City home. Nesto decides to move his Afro-Caribbean food truck from NYC to the quieter climes of Ithaca where he hopes to take advantage of being a big fish in a little pond. He’s given himself six months to make his dreams come true, but almost immediately upon arrival, he crosses paths with children’s librarian Jude, an enigmatic and attractive young man who has been deeply wounded by his family’s rejection of his identity. The spark is almost immediate, buoyed to new heights by Jude’s attempts at flirting in Spanish – and despite the walls they’ve both built, Jude and Nesto find themselves falling for each other. Herrera writes with a vivid hand, particularly when it comes to Nesto’s food, painting mouthwatering descriptions of tostones, Dominican style red beans, and more. In Herrera’s hands, Nesto’s burritos are as seductive as her sexier passages, which are unrelenting in their intensity and heat levels. Nesto and Jude fall hard and fast, and Herrera has a knack for capturing that intoxicating, distracting sensation of being caught up entirely in a new person. While her dialogue offers up clear portraits of her splendidly drawn characters, the internal monologue is at times indistinguishable – for two such distinct individuals, one wishes that came through more clearly in their point-of-view. But in addition to crafting a tender, vulnerable romance Herrera is also establishing a storytelling world, introducing us to Nesto’s warm, gregarious group of friends from his Bronx neighborhood and his supportive family. Readers will fall in love with them every bit as much as they will with the love story – the patois of good-natured ribbing and tough love that comes with old friends instantly recognizable and endearing. Herrera also deals unflinchingly with social and political issues, like LGBTQ identity and acceptance, as well as immigration and racism. They’re woven into the fabric of the story, essential to her characters’ lives, both as they dictate who they are now and as roadblocks to who they mean to become. Her villain pierces to the heart of white privilege, and the audacity of entitled white women in particular (something more evident and devastating than ever in the romance world right now)– and her writing fiercely exposes how much harder it can be to grasp that happy ending (professionally and personally) when systemic bias and deep-seated intolerance are the obstacles, while still championing wholeheartedly how much they are yearned for and deserved. Her storytelling taps into the indignities and injustices marginalized communities are suffering at alarmingly increasing rates in today’s political climate in the essential context of her characters’ search for hard-earned happiness. In Herrera’s writing, justice and happily-ever-afters are served fresh (with a tantalizing menu to boot).
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A-

Delacorte Press

Field Notes on Love
By Jennifer E. Smith
Review: Romance novels can titillate, inspire, intoxicate, and more – but then sometimes they reach in and touch something essential in you. Jennifer E. Smith’s Field Notes on Love is a YA romance that does just that – it is deceptive in its simplicity, a breeze of a read that winds down to something unbearably profound that gets at the heart of the romance genre – just what exactly love is like (and the answer is: a pizza). When British-born Hugo’s girlfriend Margaret Campbell breaks up with him just before they’ve planned a cross-country train trip across America, he’s left needing another girl named Margaret Campbell to join him on this adventure. Enter Mae Campbell, a young woman still reeling from her rejection from USC’s film school. The two embark on an unlikely trip and can’t help falling for each other, as they both come out of their shell untethered from their family and the only version of themselves they’ve ever known. The novel is a crisply exquisite rendering of young love — how fleeting, fast, and profound it can be, and how essential it is in shaping the people we become. Mae and Hugo’s love story is heartrending in how quick and simple it is, but also deeply gets at how the right people at the right time help us unlock the parts of ourselves we’re sometimes unable to even identify ourselves. It’s a travelogue of the heart that is all about finding yourself in each other. Smith touches on everything from finding one’s identity outside of one’s family to the crippling and complex power of grief to the fundamental attractiveness of passion and tenacity. All of this is also knit up in beautiful descriptions of the romanticism of train travel and the peculiar beauty of this nation from coast to coast. But the best parts of the book come from Mae’s project – a documentary interviewing others on the train about their dreams, fears, and how they’d define love. It’s a way for Smith to work out her various opinions on the matter, a kaleidoscope of musings on love – and for any romance novel, the iterations will tug at your heart, reminding you just why we’re all so in love with, well, love. Time and again, people will dismiss YA fiction specifically because it’s made for the young – but Field Notes on Love is one of the loveliest, most touching romances of 2019 thus far that gets at the nature of something deeply buried in all of our hearts.
Heat Rating: 🔥
Grade: A

Courtney Milan

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure
By Courtney Milan
Review: Courtney Milan’s latest in her Worth Saga may only be novella length, but it packs the punch of a much longer book. When 69-year-old Violetta Beauchamps turns up at the home of the very well-to-do 73-year-old Mrs. Bertrice Martin scheming to find a way to secure the pension wrongfully ripped from her, the two women fall into an adventure of rip-roaring, epically satisfying proportions. Mrs. Martin has spent the last several years ignoring her “Terrible Nephew,” but it seems the answer to both her and Violetta’s woes is to bedevil the man as much as possible – a series of schemes that Milan crafts with maniacal glee. The “Terrible Nephew” is truly terrible, a serial sexual assaulter in perpetual debt who throws around his status as an upper-class white man in the worst possible ways. Milan speaks in the author’s note of how his actions and the direction of the plot was changed by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and the pages bristle with palpable, well-placed rage. It’s a delight to watch a horrible person get their just desserts and Milan dots the prose with musings about female power and anger that cuts straight to the heart of our current moment. There’s a fierce anger here, an utterly justifiable one, and as a reader, there’s nothing more satisfying than honing the knife of one’s own rage on the pages of well-written, impassioned prose. By making her heroines two women over the age of 60, Milan also turns her romance to an oft-ignored group in a genre dominated by sprightly young heroines. There’s a deep sadness and truth in her assessment that age makes everything in nature more beautiful, more deeply appreciated – everything but women. It’s utterly breathtaking to follow two women declared to be unworthy of notice by society seize their moment and simultaneously fan the flames of their fury and desire, things they’ve long been denied. It makes you long for romance to turn a light on older women more frequently, acknowledging their still potent desire, beauty, and longing for happiness in the same ways we champion young love. In the author’s note, Milan describes how in the darkest of times, happiness and romance themselves can be acts of defiance – and this novella is a pulsing, beautiful tribute to that ineluctable truth. We only wish there were even more story of these glorious women for us to devour.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A-

Avon

The Infamous Duchess
By Sophie Barnes
Review: Sophie Barnes continues her “Diamonds in the Rough” series with The Infamous Duchess, a tale of two lovers who’ve both been wrongfully sized up by society. Viola Cartwright, the titular infamous Duchess of Tremaine, has sought refuge in her work and research at St. Agatha’s Hospital where she offers care to all of London’s citizens free of charge. Society has branded her a gold-digger for marrying an aging duke days before his death, but no one knows the real reasons. When a duel finds Henry Lowell, Viscount Armswell, on her operating table, she fears her attraction to him, given his notorious reputation as a rake – one, it turns out he devised entirely for the purpose of avoiding the marriage market. The two find intelligence and a mutual love of gardening in each other, as Viola struggles to fight back against the Duke of Tremaine’s contestation of her inheritance – a challenge that could undo all she’s worked for. Barnes has done impeccable mountains of research on medical practices of the era, and Viola’s a dazzling heroine – an ambitious medical practitioner, a protector of vulnerable women, and a kind-hearted, gentle soul. It’s these elements and the swirling controversy over Viola’s fate (and the truth of her past) that provide the real meat of the story, rather than the romance. Viola and Lowell’s love is a powerful antidote to the societal forces at work, but it’s never quite as exciting as her courtroom face-offs or her medical assiduousness. Lowell, in contrast, is charming and persistent – he perfectly strikes the balance between protector and partner, putting Viola’s reputation and safety above his own well-being. The book feels as if it has several endings, some more satisfying than others. Though the romantic chemistry is a bit staider here, both Viola and Lowell are delights unto themselves – and Barnes has crafted quite the compelling mystery and family drama that unfolds across dueling fields and medical facilities for a romance novel that dips heavily into adventure and operatic danger.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B

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