By Maureen Lee Lenker
January 02, 2020 at 04:23 PM EST
Sourcebooks Casablanca; Kensington; Avon Books

2019 was a year of highs and lows for the romance genre, one particular low coming just as the year came to a close. In the last days of December, the RWA, the professional organization known as the Romance Writers of America, sparked a firestorm when it announced sanctions against Courtney Milan, a Chinese-American romance writer and former board member.

The sanctions came after an ethics complaint was filed about Milan’s Twitter criticism of white writer Kathryn Lynn Davis’ novel. Milan had called the novel a “f–ing racist mess” for its portrayals of Chinese women. The procedures through which these sanctions were reached and the severity of the response prompted an outcry among romance writers and readers, one that is still raging now as more allegations about the vast majority of ethics complaints going unheard continues to be revealed. This has sparked a petition to recall the board president, as well as the resignation of several prominent board members who were key advocates for inclusion and progress within the organization.

In short, the current state of romance, at least in terms of its professional organization, is very much in flux. Longstanding issues regarding racism, homophobia, intolerance, and exclusion have risen to the surface and are driving a wedge between those who wish to see the genre progress and evolve, as a space for a multiplicity of voices and love stories, and those who prefer a narrower definition of its merits.

We here at Hot Stuff have always strived to promote the best of the genre, our goal being to review and celebrate the books that are moving the genre forward in essential ways. While we know romance is hurting right now, and frankly, for marginalized voices has been for decades, we hope we can still be a beacon for those doing the essential, needle-moving work. Romance is, above all, about happy endings for all. Full Stop. So we’ll continue highlighting those that do that best — here are three late December releases that honor that promise.

Kensington

Love Lettering
By Kate Clayborn
Review: Lettering, that is calligraphy, hand-lettering, and its ilk, can stop you in your tracks when done well – a beautiful work of art that breathes vivacity into a collection of previous lifeless letters, bestowing them with a unique personality. That’s precisely what Kate Clayborn has done with her much larger collection of letters in Love Lettering, artfully assembling letters, words, and paragraphs into a novel of breathtaking beauty. It follows Meg Mackworth, a professional hand-letterer/designer whose star is on the rise when an old client, Reid, shows up demanding to know how she knew his marriage would fail (and had the gall to include a code intimating as much in his wedding program). But before long, Meg is hanging out with Reid, taking walks and playing letter-based games around New York City that serves to chip away at her creative block and put them on course for a delicious slow-burn romance. Meg views the world through the hand-crafted letters that give her life purpose, words unfurling in her mind as she ponders a problem or shares a kiss. Clayborn writes so compelling of these letters, describing their idiosyncratic shape and shading in the most vivid of ways. Her exquisite prose brings to life her words in the most electric, compelling sense where readers can practically see them leaping off the page. The letters give shape to the simmering romance at the novel’s heart, swirling around Meg and Reid until they assemble into a script L-O-V-E with tear-jerking potential. But Clayborn’s strengths not only lie in her ability to wield language like an artist with a brush – Love Lettering also delivers plenty of essential lessons about protecting one’s heart, vulnerability, friendship, and more. Meg is used to telling people what they want to hear, softening her edges to make everything agreeable and channeling her true thoughts into her work. In contrast, Reid is direct to the point of being blunt, a trait that’s made him a bit of a social outsider while also lending him the appeal of, as Meg puts it, a hero straight out of Masterpiece Theater. As Meg navigates her blossoming relationship, she also struggles with professional challenges, confronting an on-going tension with her best friend, and more. Love Lettering isn’t so much an all-consuming romance as it is a tale of how finding the right person can help one find oneself in the most meaningful of ways. Reid unlocks something in Meg (and she in him) that allows her to find a new bravery within herself and live life to its fullest potential. In each other, they both learn that the risks of vulnerability are the only thing that make life worth living. Being agreeable renders rewards that pale in comparison to fighting for what you can’t live without – fighting for friendship, fighting for love, fighting for the things you believe in. On the surface, Love Lettering is the story of a letterer falling in love, but in actuality, it’s a novel of lush complexity, one bursting with humor, a tender melancholy, and meditations on love, friendship, and life any reader can find solace and inspiration in. It’s lyrical and engrossing, a novel that possesses all the colors, idiosyncrasies, and range of the alphabet. Like the pages Meg designs, Love Lettering is a novel bursting with hidden messages essential to discover – so long as we open our hearts to analyze the codes.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: A+

Avon Books

Sweet Talkin’ Lover
By Tracey Livesay
Review: Tracey Livesay is here to introduce the world to Mayor McHottie, and we are here for it. In Sweet Talkin’ Lover, her first in her new Girls Trip series, she offers up a Hallmark worthy tale of big city girl finds small-town romance with far more nuance and heat than the network’s average output. Caila Harris has dedicated her life to marketing manager job, seeking to climb the corporate ladder of the beauty industry. But when grief leads to a couple missteps, she finds herself in Bradleton, Virginia, tasked with finding evidence needed to shut down a small-town factory to have a shot at a coveted promotion. There, she butts heads (and then smashes bodies) with the local mayor, Wyatt Bradley, who is so good-looking he’s known around town as Mayor McHottie. Wyatt knows just what Caila is up to and sets out to convince her that the work ethic and family vibe of the town are worth saving, but the two can’t deny their crackling chemistry. Livesay could so easily slip into a breezy small-town romance, complete with romantic hayrides and a quaint bed-and-breakfast. There’s plenty of that twee goodness in store, but she also digs deeper, acknowledging the drawbacks of a small-town, particularly for women of color. Wyatt is battling family expectations, torn between his desires and his duties, and Livesay expertly plumbs the weight of his responsibilities and Caila’s own crushing grief and obsessive striving. Bradleton is a tight-knit community, replete with bake-sales and high school football games, but Livesay unpacks both the nuisances and pitfalls of such an environment, while also wholeheartedly celebrating it. Caila falls in love not only with Wyatt, his big heart and soothing ways, but with Bradleton and its denizens, finding a warmth in their supportive community, rather than continuing to isolate herself. But Livesay also doesn’t fall prey to undercutting Caila’s discoveries and victories, forcing her to choose love over career – instead, she finds a way to a resolution that allows for all the characters to celebrate their strengths, honor their inner-most yearnings, and still realistically grapple with the challenges life throws our way. It’s an optimistic romance laced with necessary jolts of reality, proving that Livesay knows how to both deliver and elevate the small-town genre.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B+

Sourcebooks Casablanca

Loki Ascending
By Asa Maria Bradley
Review: Asa Maria Bradley continues her Viking Warriors series with Loki Ascending, a plot that centers on the Norse trickster God’s attempts to achieve a corporal form on Earth and take over the planet. In the midst of this devious scheme, immortal Viking healer Irja and human Scott Brisbane try to sort out their attraction and the possibility that they might be soulmates, bound by an unbreakable Norse magic. While Irja races to solve the source of a mysterious illness striking down fellow Vikings, Scott must contend with the sudden appearance of his own “berserker,” an inner warrior that has only ever developed in mortals when they meet an immortal soulmate. Bradley’s novel is swiftly paced, and her battle scenes are where her writing soars, pinging between the tribe of Viking warriors locked in a fierce fight for the fate of the world. But her dialogue is stilted, especially when it’s bogged down in the exposition of filling in backstory from past novels. Irja and Scott’s love story often takes a backseat to the drama unfolding before them, as they have to race off to heal newly fallen warriors or engage in a fight with some of Loki’s wolverine minions. Their connection is strong, but their romance doesn’t receive the type of deep evolution that so often makes this genre sing. It’s their familial bonds that evoke a more emotionally resonant tale, Scott’s with his sister Naya and Irja’s with her twin Pekka. Those relationships are tested in ways that even their romantic bond is not, making this more a tale of found family and group dynamics than a swoony romance. Blame it on Tom Hiddleston if you must, but despite being the villain, there’s something undeniably appealing about Loki – his charms are allowed to come out and play slightly, but his presence in the title makes one wish he maybe had a more direct role in the romance. Ultimately, Bradley’s writing settles into its strengths most easily when she’s writing of her warriors in battle and honing the bonds of the entire tribe. Steamy sparks do fly between Irja and Scott, and the back half of the book more firmly explores the push and pull of their relationship in satisfying ways. When it comes to paranormal romance with explosive action scenes, Bradley has that nailed – we just wish that her tale of soulmates packed a bit more oomph in the passages focused on that most sacred of relationship bonds. Loki Ascending is a riveting adventure tale with a thrilling climax to match, but it’s more fulfilling in its tale of familial love than romantic.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Grade: B

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