By Maureen Lee Lenker
May 29, 2019 at 04:19 PM EDT
HarperCollins; Avon; St. Martin's Griffin

Temperatures are on the rise and so is the heat in the pages of romance…

May saw the release of two YA royal romances, Red, White & Royal Blue and Her Royal Highness, both of which find British royalty falling for an American and feature an LGBTQ romance. And reader, we can’t tell you how happy it makes us to have two such different, swoony books with similar set-ups hit shelves the same month. May also saw the release of two historical romances with women fierce, rebellious women at their hearts — and the DNA of Elizabeth Bennet gets a contemporary spin in Sonali Dev’s latest. Here are our five picks for the month of May.

Red, White & Royal Blue
By Casey McQuiston
Review: This debut novel from Casey McQuiston has all the spark, joy, and wonder of a summer fireworks display. Alex Claremont-Diaz is the first son of the United States and sure of two things – one) that he wants to follow in his family footsteps and go into politics and two) that he cannot stand the youngest Prince of England, Henry. When an incident between the two sparks a tabloid scandal, Alex and Henry have to fake a friendship to smooth over international relations – but the two soon find themselves caught up in international relations of an entirely more literal nature. As he realizes his attraction for Henry, Alex digests his emerging bisexuality, all the while also diverting attention to his mother’s campaign for re-election to her second presidential term. Their love deepens, but Alex and Henry are determined to keep their relationship secret to prevent political disaster on either side of the pond – both must grapple with their place in history, what they mean to each other, and if this relationship is worth the sacrifices it might entail. McQuiston crafts this relationship with perfection, nailing the beats of Alex’s transition from outright dislike of Henry to a warm friendship to something deeper and more unknowable. The story is told entirely from Alex’s point-of-view, but we still get a richly painted portrait of Henry – his lean beauty, his wry sense of humor, and the ghosts that haunt him in his darker moments. It’s an exquisite rendering of a relationship – the tiny in-jokes that develop, the way you can lean on a partner who understands your soul, the all-consuming nature of physical attraction that grows into something more profound. McQuiston pulls out some of the most breathtakingly beautiful letters and exchanges between lovers in history, with a particular emphasis on queer relationships, and uses them as a channel for Alex and Henry to express the things they cannot put into words. They inject bursts of palpable literary beauty into a book that is itself an emotional work of art from start to finish. Most of that stems from the core relationship and its purity – McQuiston writes characters that are sarcastic, wry, and snarky at moments, but the beauty of her love story lies in its earnestness and how that sincerity lives in perfect harmony with its dry humor. Part of that emerges in the political context of the book. McQuiston conceived of the novel before the 2016 election, and the world has changed significantly since that time. To read a story that rewrites that narrative and offers us the nation’s first female president, a progressive, take-charge politician who sees the best in her family and her nation is every bit as emotional as the squee-inducing romance. Reading those passages brings tears to your eyes and leaves a lump in your throat, imagining what might have been. This combined with the deeply romantic tale at the novel’s beautiful, beating heart offer up a book that is ultimately all about hope. Alex and Henry are the purest of literary entities – their love is the stuff of fairy-tales while their hang-ups, obsessions, and wants are entirely relatable. But they dare to dream of a world where love wins, where the sacrifice is worth it, and hope isn’t just a political buzzword, but the lifeblood of the things that matter most. Red, White & Royal Blue is an opportunity to let go of a collective breath we’ve been holding, a spiritually healing reading experience – but it’s also a fireworks in the sky, glitter in your hair joyous royal romance that you’ll want to fall head over heels in love with again and again.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A+

The Rogue of Fifth Avenue
By Joanna Shupe
Review: Joanna Shupe kicks off her new Gilded Age series Uptown Girls with this tale of lawyer Frank Tripp and rebellious, charitable society girl Mamie Greene. Mamie has been playing Fifth Avenue Robin Hood, pickpocketing the wealthiest in her world to help the less fortunate in the Lower East Side tenements, most particularly women struggling to support their children and living under the threat of domestic violence. As her father’s lawyer, Frank takes it upon himself to track her movements – but he underestimates how irresistible he’ll find her and how her commitment to her cause will dredge up the past he’s worked hard to leave behind. A supporting character in previous novels, here Frank Tripp gets his own HEA, and this silver-tongued lawyer (yes that is a euphemism! 👅) is a dashing hero with the perfect splash of tortured past and roguish charm. As Mamie struggles to reconcile her attraction to Frank with her nearly lifelong betrothal to a boring, philandering society man, Shupe also injects her plotting with a gripping criminal trial. One of the women Mamie has befriended murders her abusive husband in self-defense, and Mamie immediately recruits Frank to help Mrs. Porter fight back against the inherent inequities of the justice system and the corruption of the New York police. It’s a potent backdrop to cast this central romance against, one that allows space for Shupe to interrogate social justice, classism, and the heartbreaking complexities of the circumstances of domestic violence victims. Mamie’s journey is about claiming her independence and the future she wants for herself; a future that feels limited by her father and society’s expectations. But this stands in parallel to the even steeper challenges Mrs. Porter faces and makes the book a powerful parable for the limited choices available to women and how such choices are shaped by the vagaries of class. Shupe also includes a sequence of assault to further the point she’s making about how often women were (or are) subject to the whims of men – and that true happy endings come from throwing off the shackles of the limitations of class, sex, gender, and societal expectation to live a life of own’s choosing. For Mamie and Frank, their happy ending is as much about justice as it is about the electric chemistry they share – chemistry readers get to witness explode with sexy times on a billiard table and a desk. Swoon! With The Rogue of Fifth Avenue, Shupe continues to build on the sterling legacy she’s building for herself as a gifted weaver of glittering Gilded Age tales (complete with lots of nods to real historical figures), while also deepening the contemporary resonance of her themes.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors
By Sonali Dev
Review: Gifted author Sonali Dev takes up the threads of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to craft an emotional, affecting love story. Dev’s tale imbues the insight and power of Austen’s lens on classism, arrogance, pride, forgiveness, and attraction with a heady contemporary take that feels both steeped in timelessness and utterly fresh. Dr. Trisha Raje is an extremely gifted neurosurgeon, who takes refuge in two things – her tight-knit family and her work. Trisha has wrestled with years of guilt over a friend’s betrayal that threatened the balance of the entire family. When Trisha stumbles into D.J. Caine’s kitchen at a family gathering, she doesn’t realize the promising chef is her latest patient’s brother – or how incredible his food tastes – just that she’s hungry, he’s got a great butt, and he’s getting on her last nerve. The two must battle through their assumptions and misconceptions about each other’s privilege, upbringing, arrogance, and more before realizing the root of their intense feelings is attraction. Dev expertly seizes upon the aspects of Austen’s works that feel most universal – questions of classism, how generosity of spirit and open-heartedness can transform one’s opinion of another, and how being a shy person that belongs to an insular family can come off as haughty – without ever being a slave to Austen’s plotting. This is a new romance in its own right, one that keys into the most pressing issues of the moment, whether it be digital scams, privilege, or the stress of longed-for motherhood in the face of tragedy. Dev taps into the beating hearts of her characters with the precision of a surgeon, making their misapprehensions feel entirely believable without dipping into behavior that would squarely place them in unlikable territory in need of redemption. You understand their instincts and assumptions so well that you can root for them both at the same time, while also never losing sight of where they’re both coming from. Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy are two of the most enduring characters in literature, and Dev takes their essence to devise two contemporary, engrossing new characters that take up the outline of these famous characters and color them in with vibrancy and freshness. It must also be noted that Dev is a gifted food writer – her descriptions of D.J.’s incredible cuisine are mouth-watering from appetizer to dessert. It is probably physically impossible to read this book and not be starving after a chapter or two. But that unsatisfiable appetite is an apt metaphor for the book as a whole – its earliest pages are like a light amuse bouche, drawing you in with their tantalizing flavors of Austen before bursting into a flavor palette that’s equal parts surprising, familiar, and fulfilling. One quick note, however, for any who have dealt with a family member’s cancer diagnosis, this book may be triggering — Dev is purposely provocative in her character’s ableism, but she handles the overall storyline with grace if you can get past the early chapters.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥
Grade: A-

Rebel
By Beverly Jenkins
Review: Beverly Jenkins’ launches her latest series Women Who Dare with a return to a fan favorite family – the New Orleans based LeVeq clan. This time Jenkins turns her pen to Drake LeVeq, a fiery, passionate man who divides his time between building projects, familial gatherings, and volunteering for causes assisting the newly freed in the Reconstruction-era South. One night, Drake rescues self-professed hellion and school-teacher Valinda Lacy from an attack by white supremacists, individuals growing in their numbers and boldness in the aftermath of the Civil War. As she often does, Jenkins casts her romance against the stark realities of history – realities that are even more sobering for people of color, while still making room for her characters’ joy, triumphs, and happily-ever-afters. Here, she throws herself off the deep end with a book that looks head-on at the creation of early iterations of the KKK and the dangers facing freedmen in the years following the Civil War. Her passages that interrogate questions of when people will let the past die feel sadly more pertinent than ever. Racism, intolerance, homophobia, violence – they’re all things that Jenkins tackles in Rebel in a way that feels both explicitly of its time and place, while also showcasing the roots of ideas that have reared their ugly heads to haunt us again today. Those passages are Jenkins’ best – the bruising truth of how hate refuses to die laid bare on the page. Val is a teacher, and her commitment to her students partnered with her acknowledgment of the power of education and reading is implicitly moving. Jenkins also is there to remind us that love wins in spite of everything. Val and Drake refuse to have their spirit or their love bowed by the challenges they face. Instead, they work even harder to provide a better future for themselves and those less fortunate than them. The conflict in their relationship feels a bit forced at times – Val’s one obstacle is a previously arranged marriage of convenience, and she gets out of it with surprisingly little strife only to hem and haw about whether she wants to marry Drake. Both Val and Drake are fierce characters, determined to fight for the things they love and value – which makes their reluctance to fight for each other in some key moments feel out-of-joint. As a result, their fight for social justice, education, and the welfare of all people is often more compelling than their actual love story. Still, Jenkins knows how to craft a romantic yarn against a historical backdrop with all the attendant power and punch befitting her status as a romance icon.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B+

Penguin

Her Royal Highness
By Rachel Hawkins
Review: Rachel Hawkins continues her Royals series with Her Royal Highness, picking up with the fictional royal family of Scotland where she left off in Royals (now retitled Prince Charming).  When Texas-born Millie Quint heads off to Scotland for her senior year of high school, she’s looking forward to the rugged landscapes, fairy-tale setting, and having the chance to forget about seeing her sort-of-best-friend/sort-of-girlfriend kissing someone else. But she’s dismayed to find her roommate Flora is haughty, arrogant, and a bit of a party animal – and oh yeah, she’s also the Princess of Scotland. Millie and Flora gradually move from enemies to lovers as they break down each other’s walls – and Millie learns just how generous and loving Flora can be under the protective armor she’s made for herself. Hawkins has a breezy writing style that radiates warmth, wit, and heart. It’s one she honed to perfection in last year’s Prince Charming, and she employs it to aplomb again here. However, whereas the first book in this series was a winning, sweep-you-off-your feet romance, Her Royal Highness is a bit more of a slow burn, often to its own detriment. It’s refreshing to read a YA LGBTQ love story that sheds all hand-wringing about questions of identity, instead allowing its characters to revel unabashedly in who they are (apart from the pressure of royal protocol). But the book often lacks stakes. So much time is spent on their mutual dislike and Millie’s adjustment to Scotland, that we are given short shrift on their romance and sense of connection. Both Millie and Flora are delightful characters – Millie with her pragmatism and love of geology, Flora with an air of royal entitlement that masks her sensitive soul. Yet, Hawkins doesn’t let their romance breathe enough, thereby undercutting the depth of their connection. Her Royal Highness is another royal romp from Hawkins with the added bonus of a central female/female relationship, which is still dismayingly infrequently represented in romantic and YA fiction. But it’s not as much of a crowning jewel as its predecessor.
Heat Rating: 🔥
Grade: B

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