Credit: Berkley (2); Harlequin; William Morrow Paperbacks

Setting is key in a romance novel — it’s the backdrop against which two people fall in love.

Love can happen anywhere and at any time — on an English country estate in the 19th century, at a modern-day Renaissance Faire, on an all-expense-paid tour of America’s best eateries, on a Greek island, or in the midst of a Hurricane in the Florida Keys. This month we review five titles that make their setting an essential character in the romance at the heart of things.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca
Credit: Berkley

Well Met
By Jen DeLuca
Review: If you like any of the following things: Hook as portrayed by Colin O’Donoghue on Once Upon a Time, the works of William Shakespeare, Renaissance Faires, or men in leather pants, then Well Met is likely to be your new favorite read. From its winking opening lines (“I didn’t choose the wench life. The wench life chose me”) to its leather-clad, piratical, wounded snack of a hero, Well Met is a divinely entertaining romp, a Ren Faire set romance with a crucial undercurrent of deep feeling. After a devastating break-up, Emily has come to Willow Creek, Md., to care for her sister and niece when they’re injured in a car accident. As part of trying to bring normalcy to their lives, Emily agrees to volunteer for the local summer Ren Faire alongside her niece. There, she crosses paths with Simon, the uptight organizer who is keeping the flame of the festival alive for very personal reasons. Initially, Simon and Emily butt heads. Simon believes Emily doesn’t treat the Faire seriously enough, and Emily is convinced he’s a wet blanket determined to suck the fun out of everything. Things get blurry when the two-step into character for the Faire, Emily as tavern wench Emma and Simon as dashing pirate Captain Leatherpants Blackthorne. As with the best of romances, Emily and Simon are nursing deep-seated wounds: for Emily, the specter of her failed relationship and the feeling that she’ll never be enough for anyone, and for Simon, the weight of his brother’s death and the pressure of carrying that legacy. De Luca tells the story exclusively from Emily’s perspective, and as a result, Simon likely comes off worse than if it were split. But it’s a testament to her skill that Simon is no less irresistible for it — if glowering, grumpy men with a secret soft, romantic side are your thing, buckle up, baby. The descriptions of him in his pirate gear, from the edges of his kohl-rimmed eyes to the deep-v of his vests, down to his leather-clad legs (and ok, fine, his butt) are likely to induce a thirst so wide and so deep you could sail a ship across it. His hurt pulses off the page, vibrating in its intensity, even making Emily’s fury at his single-mindedness about the Faire read as a bit of an overreaction. Emily’s constant assumptions that she’s being passed over can start to wear thin as the main source of conflict in the third act, but it’s grounded in a real sense of anxiety and past experience that prevent it from edging over into something contrived or slight. More than anything, it’s the world that De Luca has created here that sings — the rich tapestry of the Ren Faire and its denizens drawing you into its sights and sounds. You can practically taste the turkey legs and hear the revelers. Emily grows to find a family and a sense of home, and readers will too as they sink into the inviting warmth that glows from every character and space. There’s an abiding sense of play in the proceedings that shines through on each page, even while tackling heavier subjects of grief and abandonment. De Luca’s voice is a welcome addition to romance, unabashedly bold, funny, and nerdy. She leans into the things she loves — from her heroic inspirations to her love of the Bard — and the book is all the better for it. Reader, there is a scene where Simon and Emily flirt over the Shakespeare authorship question, and I swooned! In De Luca’s hands, there is nothing sexier than an argument over which 400-year-old dead guy wrote some brilliant plays (for the record, it’s Will and only Will, this columnist brooks no arguments otherwise). In a genre where tropes are in abundance and the ending is all but guaranteed, voice is essential and De Luca has a fresh, funny one that zips off the page. From its first sentences to its perfectly sentimental happy ending complete with a grand gesture to make even the coldest of Tudor hearts melt, Well Met has us declaring “huzzah!” from the rooftops and shoving it into the hands of every fair maiden or pirate we happen upon.
Heat Rating: ???
Grade: A

Dine with Me by Layla Reyne
Credit: Carina Press

Dine With Me
By Layla Reyne
Review: With her latest novel, Layla Reyne delivers a truly mouthwatering tale served up to readers on a silver platter with a hearty side helping of gut-punchingly emotional drama. Miller Sykes is a world-renowned chef whose life is crashing down around him. Staring a potentially life-threatening diagnosis in the face, he resolves to go on a “last supper” tour of his favorite eateries in America — and when in need of a financial backer, he lands on Dr. Clancy Rhodes, a young doctor trying to make peace with his decision to move from oncology to his father’s plastic surgery practice. The two men are immediately attracted to each other, with Miller intrigued by Clancy’s enthusiasm and earnest engagement with life, and Clancy equally drawn to Miller’s no B.S. attitude and his big heart. But to have a shot at real happiness, Clancy has to convince Miller his life is worth saving. Reyne crafts a deeply felt novel that plumbs the guilt and indecision of those facing a terminal diagnosis. Commendably, she includes a content warning at the front of the book for any readers who might not be ready to deal with subjects like cancer, possible end-of-life scenarios, and more. She probes the heart of why Miller would consider succumbing to his illness in ways both nuanced and heartbreaking, without ever veering into the maudlin. Miller’s initial reasons for denying treatment, like his fear of losing his taste buds, are gradually swept away by deeper concerns related to the toll treatment will take on his loved ones. Thus, Reyne avoids the pitfalls of a novel like Me Before You and veers away from harmful stereotypes of ableism. But her real gift is in the foodie tour at the heart of this love story. As they visit each restaurant along the tour, she catalogs Miller and Clancy’s meals with the precision of a neurosurgeon and the lyricism of a poet. Each description of their food and their reactions to it is truly tantalizing, and equally (if not more) orgasmic as the steamier scenes she includes. Not only that, but she expertly captures Miller’s obsessive love of the simple building blocks of food and Clancy’s outsider foodie perspective, tapping into what makes memorable, delectable meals into something truly special. There’s a deep, abiding hunger for her subject matter that shines through on every page and will have you running for your kitchen cabinet for what will undoubtedly be a disappointing snack in comparison to whatever mouthwatering morsel she just detailed. For Miller and Clancy, food is as powerful a force as love — one equally as knit up in sentiment, yearning, desire, and lust. Through their gastronomic journey, she makes food and the people and places that produce it a metaphor for life and love that will ring true to anyone who’s ever relished a sip of wine or bite of cake. Reyne’s writing sizzles and Dine With Me is a course to be savored — one that will make your mouth water, satisfy and move you with its complexity of flavors, and still somehow leave you hungry for more.
Heat Rating: ????
Grade: A-

Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
Credit: Berkley

Bringing Down the Duke
By Evie Dunmore
Review: With her sterling debut, Evie Dunmore dives into a fresh new space in historical romance that hits all the right notes for the sub-genre. Brilliant, curious vicar’s daughter Annabelle Archer is part of the first class of female students at Oxford University — and a suffragist (not to be confused with the more militant suffragettes of the early 20th century). As part of maintaining her scholarship, she must join the fight for women’s rights, which accidentally brings her into the path of Sebastian Devereux, the Duke of Montgomery, a cold, calculating man with Queen Victoria’s ear — thus, the perfect target for political activism. Naturally, Sebastian finds Annabelle frustratingly irresistible, but he fears her common background and bluestocking tendencies could prove an insurmountable threat to the family legacy he’s desperate to rebuild. Dunmore builds an intoxicating historical world, drawing richly upon real figures and events, including Queen Victoria and prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. One of the core aspects of historical romance is the vast network of fictional aristocracy, but in recent years, work by authors like Dunmore, Joanna Shupe, Maya Rodale and more have increasingly engaged with real historical figures in ways that are playful, smart, and daring. Dunmore captures the spirit of the era with a sparkling effervescence, plowing through staid stereotypes of Victorian England to give us a group of extraordinary women refusing to live as bystanders in their own lives. Annabelle is warm and engaging, a woman richly dedicated to studying the classics and equally committed to her fight for suffrage. Annabelle dares Devereux to stand-up to the ultimate test of love — pledging his wallet and his body to her aren’t enough, he has to be willing to try to change the world. A duke who throws convention aside to raise a common girl to the aristocracy as his wife is almost as elemental to historical romance as an HEA – but it’s Annabelle who makes Dunmore’s story fresh. Her commitment to her principles and her cause push Devereux to reconsider all the values he’s worked so hard to uphold. It’s not that she won’t be his mistress for a moral reason, so much as it is that Annabelle knows her own value, and she won’t allow it to be cataloged by arbitrary social rules and classism. Instead, she seeks a better world. Devereux is also cut from a familiar cloth, an ice-cold picture of control and snobbery whose heart is melted by Annabelle. By situating Annabelle in a historical moment of activism and change, Dunmore draws parallels to our own time while offering readers a heroine who is both a textbook romance protagonist and one willing to push for more than her own happily-ever-after. The book suffers slightly from too speedy of a resolution of Annabelle’s angst — Devereux’s decisions would read more powerfully if we marinated in her despair a smidge longer. But on the whole, Bringing Down the Duke is a delightful new entry in the historical romance genre that works to both uphold the best of its traditions while pushing it into new frontiers and deepening its ties to history.
Heat Rating: ????
Grade: B+

No Judgements by Meg Cabot
Credit: William Morrow Paperbacks

No Judgments
By Meg Cabot
Review: There’s no question that Meg Cabot is a queen of the contemporary rom-com. Queen is scarcely a high enough title for her contributions to the genre (perhaps supreme ruler is better?). The rom-com is having a resurgence on shelves complete with adorable illustrated covers that used to dominate what was once dubbed “chick lit,” but Cabot has been in the game for nearly two decades. Her unique voice, a sardonic wit laced with romantic optimism, is as welcome (and needed) as before. Her latest, No Judgments, is based on her actual experiences during Hurricane Irma. In particular, she was inspired by a young woman on the island who set up a landline to enable a system that would allow her to care for people’s pets left behind in the storm. This part of the book is painted with vivid detail and sparkles with her signature humor as it bounces back and forth between the alarmist weather reports and the very real, wide-ranging reasons people choose not to evacuate during serious storms. All of which she does, as the title states, with no judgments. But her central romance leaves a little something to be desired from the usually sterling Cabot. Bree has escaped to the tropical vista of Little Bridge Island to outrun a sexual assault she endured, piecing her life back together one painting of the ocean at a time. Drew is an island native and a hunky carpenter whose misplaced bad boy reputation precedes him, making gun shy Bree mistrust him and assume he’s constantly underestimating her. Bree and Drew are cut from Cabot’s typical cloth — a smart-aleck, bubbly young woman paired off with a slightly curmudgeonly hero with a heart of gold. But the more serious elements of the book, particularly Bree’s trauma that sent her to the island in the first place, feel odd juxtaposed next to Cabot’s humorous, light-hearted tone that has made her a standout to a generation of women. When Bree finally confronts her harasser, things particularly get weird, veering off into a Liam Neeson-esque revenge fantasy for a brief moment. For those who haven’t lived through a hurricane, the hero and heroine’s choices not to evacuate may also read as reckless — but it’s hard to calibrate it if you’re reading without the lived experience. Cabot takes care to both chastise media coverage of storms and examine extenuating circumstances that can lead some not to leave their homes. When a new Meg Cabot novel hits shelves, I will always be the first in line — and this certainly won’t change my undying devotion to her work. But in attempting to straddle the line between trauma and her always joyful tone, something gets lost in translation. No Judgments is still a buoyant read, but it has to struggle a little harder to stay afloat than some of her other titles.
Heat Rating: ???
Grade: B

Island Fling with the Tycoon by Therese Beharrie
Credit: Harlequin

Island Fling with the Tycoon
By Therese Beharrie
Review: In this slip of a novel, Therese Beharrie takes readers on a Greek getaway to a romantic adventure cast against the backdrop of a runaway groom tale. Piper Evans is not a fan of her brother’s new brother-in-law Caleb Martin from the word go — he’s a take-charge kind of guy and she’s reeling from the one-two punch of a controlling, manipulative father and ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, Caleb is instantly attracted to Piper despite his dislike of her brother. For his part, Caleb hasn’t made much of a life for himself apart from his siblings, dedicated to filling the void their father’s death left in their lives. Beharrie expertly crafts their past wounds, plumbing how their worst fears and frustrations are pinged by each other in spite of their growing connection, though her character development falls short when it comes to the resolution and how they move on with each other. Partly because so much of the book is dedicated to their past assumptions, fears, and ways of doing things, it feels rather abrupt when they switch course without much prodding from each other. Beharrie still expertly delivers on her Greek island setting, making the beach houses and lush cliffside getaways as swoony as the central romance. The extenuating conflict is also crafted with care — when Piper’s brother runs away only a few days before the wedding, it provides the perfect springboard for Piper and Caleb to team up, while also granting them both plenty of fodder outside their relationship to question their emotional habits. Island Fling with the Tycoon doesn’t delve as deep as you might hope given that the characters are reeling from abuse and grief. Yet, with its island setting and the high stakes of a wedding countdown, it’s still a breezy summer getaway that goes down like a tropical cocktail — sweet and sugary, if not altogether satisfying.
Heat Rating: ??
Grade: B