Hot Stuff: February romance novels are tender and warmhearted
We review five new releases.
February is the one month a year the rest of the world decides it's time to talk about romance (and generally in an uninformed fashion). But here at Hot Stuff, we're all about celebrating romance 365 days of the year. Here's our take on five new romance titles from February.
Love at First, by Kate Clayborn
Review: Technically speaking, the Romantic poets are the likes of Shelley, Keats, and Byron, but Love at First is further fuel for the argument that Kate Clayborn should be dubbed one herself. Deeply romantic, her writing is a palimpsest, constantly revealing new layers of lyricism. Love at First is a standalone companion piece to her magnificent Love Lettering. When Will Sterling unexpectedly inherits his estranged uncle's Chicago apartment, he doesn't expect to encounter Nora Clarke, the girl he first saw at 15 and fell for with a single glance. And he especially doesn't expect Nora to be the one spearheading the building's attempts to sabotage his desire to make his unit a short-term rental. But as sabotage transforms to genuine connection, the two interrogate what happens when destiny gives way to choosing someone every day. Love At First is utterly guileless, a novel that paints its pictures of love and found family with the same earnest wonder Nora reserves for the early morning hours just before the dawn. It's a tale of grief and loss, of learning to build and nurture a family when the one you were given abandons you. There's palpable pain here, a real sense of how losing the ones we love most can untether us. But it's a remarkable tale of how essential mourning is, how grief never really goes away, it just changes us and shapes us into people who have had to learn how to hold someone in their heart in new ways. While Nora wrestles with how to let go in a way that honors her grandmother's legacy, Will struggles with how to put down roots with someone at all. Clayborn understands how love in its multitudes can be terrifying, comforting, cozy, and reckless, and she writes characters with a breathless zeal as they learn to love in ways that defy selfishness and embrace uncertainty. From stolen moments on balconies to encounters with the quirky denizens of Nora's building, Clayborn offers a panoply of moments that feel both painstakingly real and deeply poetic. And isn't that what poetry is? Making the mundane into something marvelous. Love at First is poetry, then — sometimes an artful sonnet, other times halting free verse. But it's never anything short of miraculous.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Jackson, by LaQuette
Review: LaQuette launches her romantic suspense series Restoration Ranch with this tale of fierce ranch owner Aja Everett and the Texas Ranger who steamrolls his way into her life and her heart. When a series of incidents pile up on the old family homestead she's working to convert into a resort, Aja is railroaded into accepting security detail in the form of a trio of Texas Rangers, led by mistrustful Jackson Dean. When the two meet, the attraction between them is undeniable, but will their affair last beyond the time it takes to bring the people targeting Aja to justice? LaQuette offers readers a yarn of a suspense story with the danger palpable on every page. She grounds it in a social reality that ups the ante and gives its stakes real-world bite. Because Aja is using the ranch not only to give herself a second chance, but also a pair of women on parole, trying to get a fresh start after doing time. The novel digs into the frustrating realities of the suspicion that dogs the lives of former felons, while making a poignant case for the trust and rehabilitation Aja offers. That rehabilitation becomes metaphorical in her love story with Jackson as they both open up to the possibility that they could be each other's redemption from lives they've deemed unworthy of love. LaQuette excels in sequences of suspense and sensuality, innately understanding the danger and connection that fuel both. The novel lags a bit in its center, temporarily selling us a relatively pat resolution, but it picks up steam for its climatic finale. The novel celebrates those that have the grace required to start over, helping Jackson and Aja learn to embrace the redemption they're willing to offer everyone but themselves. Jackson is ultimately about digging deep and finding the strength and the people worth going the extra mile for. It's a bighearted tale of forgiveness, fresh starts, and fine-as-hell characters.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
A Lady's Formula for Love, by Elizabeth Everett
Review: It turns out the formula for a fizzy, engrossing romance is a bluestocking scientist heroine, her stern bodyguard, and sprinkles of wit and intrigue in equal measure. Lady Violet Hughes has dedicated her life to two things: (1) science experiments and (2) Athena's Retreat, the clandestine sanctuary she's founded for other bookish women who want a place to conduct their research in peace. But when Violet's club and life are threatened by a mysterious figure, she is placed under the watchful eye of professional bodyguard Arthur Kneland. It's just a smidge inconvenient that having his arms wrapped about her to hurl her out of harm's way is an immense turn-on. The two have both locked their hearts away. Arthur learned the hard way the cost of putting attraction before duty, and he is still nursing childhood losses. Hurt by the casual cruelty of her first husband, Violet has come to believe that her desire and her intelligence have made her unattractive. But as the two find their pairing increasingly combustible, they must race to both stop the club from being brought to its knees and decide if they could have a real future together. This is Elizabeth Everett's debut, and just like her heroine, her writing is markedly self-assured, clever, and wry. The Victorian world she has crafted bustles with life, the oddities and specificities of the era as vivid as the best Sherlock Holmes adaptations. It bursts with a whole-hearted celebration of women who choose to live gleefully outside the bounds of patriarchy's limitations, carving meaningful discovery in a time when their efforts would go unmarked or outright disdained. Digging deep into the politics of the novel, it can feel queerly anti-labor in its choice of antagonist if one thinks too hard, which is perhaps an inevitable difficulty of having to reckon with telling escapist stories about the aristocracy in the first place. And its ending perhaps leans too hard into the woman scorned trope. But the intrigue is merely one factor in the novel's delights, with the smoldering relationship between barrel-chested Arthur and deeply romantic Violet the real elemental magic in a book that sparks with real chemistry.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Make Up Break Up, by Lily Menon
Review: Lily Menon makes her adult romance debut with this tech-based rom-com about two startup founders whose mutual loathing melts to love. Annika Dev believes passionately in her app, Make Up, designed to help couples work though failing relationships. But she's floundering while cocky Hudson Craft is on a meteoric rise with his own app, Break Up, which helps facilitate soulless breakups by third party. It doesn't help that Annika and Hudson had a hot and heavy fling the previous summer, leaving Annika to assume Hudson stole her idea and twisted it into his impersonal tech. But when they end up back in each other's orbit, can they keep their competitive edge in spite of their still heady attraction? The book has the spritely pace and banter of the best rom-coms, as well as a killer concept. But it leaves something to be desired in execution. Both Annika and Hudson are dreamy, aspirational protagonists in their own right, but their mistrust, continual tendency to assume the worst of the other, and attempts at sabotage overpower the romance here. Time and again, it's difficult to see why they might be willing to forgive each other or look past the very real harm they're attempting to perpetrate against each other's careers. They push the "enemies" part of "enemies to lovers" a bit too far for a contemporary rom-com to make their eventual happy ending all that believable. Beyond that, Hudson is asked to make a massive sacrifice to make the relationship work that unfairly puts the onus almost entirely on him. There's threads of a great book here, and Menon's writing is a stylistic delight. Her descriptions are vibrant and her approach to storytelling is eminently readable. But Make Up Break Up could do with some recalibrating to make its central love story less caustic and more compatible.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, by K.J. Charles
Review: With her latest standalone romance, K.J. Charles gifts readers a book that reminds me of nothing so much as a cup of tea in that it's cozy, warming, and oh so very British. Robin and Marianne Loxleigh are the toast of the London season, but their entire glittering façade is a lie. Beneath their dazzling good looks and ostentatious wardrobe, they're two fortune hunters, seeking rich spouses to extricate themselves from a life of abuse and poverty. But when Robin sets his eyes on the niece of Sir John Hartlebury, he invites the ire of one of society's gruffest members. Yet just when Hart thinks he's got the best of Robin, the two find themselves tumbling into bed — and love — with each other. Charles magnificently probes issues of class and sexuality, while still crafting a read that is utterly feel-good. It's easy to feel safe in her authorial hands, but she also doesn't pull her punches when it comes to Robin's attempts to make Hart understand the why of his fortune hunting. While Hart is trapped in classist views about the merits of a high birth, Robin exposes how much of it is luck and not at all an indication of one's true character. The book is both a frothy romp alongside two Regency con artists and a pointed commentary on class consciousness. But there's such tenderheartedness, particularly on the part of the titular fortune hunters, that the book always feels like a warm hug, something to sink into when the world is falling apart. And sometimes that's really all one wants from a good romance.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥