Hot Stuff: 2021 kicks off with romances that will hit you in the feels
Romance is having a bit of a moment.
With the record-breaking success of Bridgerton on Netflix, the genre has been in the spotlight in recent weeks. But for those of us who've long loved romance, we've always known what the rest of the world is cottoning on to: that the genre is bursting with great stories full of captivating characters and compelling commentary on everything from gender to class, and that nothing beats the warm fuzzy feelings of a happy ending.
For those looking to dive in to even more great romance, here are five noteworthy titles from January.
The Ex Talk, by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Review: Rachel Lynn Solomon crafts a rom-com that's like literary ASMR for podcast aficionados and NPR nerds. Shay Goldstein has been a producer at her Seattle public radio station for almost 10 years, but her patience is challenged when hotshot Dominic Yun breezes in with his freshly minted journalism master's and gets major opportunities without paying his dues. But when Shay proposes a new show, The Ex Talk, in which two exes will deliver relationship advice on air, she never anticipates that her struggling station's boss will decide she and Dominic are the perfect cohosts. Never mind that they haven't dated; their mutual loathing should do the trick. But after they start working together closely, Shay and Dominic can't help but feel a pull of attraction that could unravel everything they've worked so hard to build. Solomon delivers a sterling enemies-to-lovers tale, one that pulses with the delicious tension of dislike as a thinly veiled denial of fascination from the first page. It's a novel of stolen glances, hurried intimacy reached for like a life raft in a storm, and deeply felt connection. Both Dominic and Shay are trying to make sense of what it means to be an adult and to call a place home, carving space for themselves both personally and professionally. Shay is still wrestling with the all-consuming shadow of grief that has haunted her since her father died when she was 18, while Dominic is nursing the wounds of a devastating breakup. The last thing they expect is to find the sense of peace and comfort missing in their lives in each other. But what makes The Ex Talk so profoundly lovely is the notion that while home can be a person rather than a place, learning to live with the quiet is equally as important. It's about not only finding your person, but your purpose. The Ex Talk is so many things: a banter-packed laugh-out-loud rom-com, a meditation on how grief shapes our lives and our love, an ode to the joys of public radio and podcasting, and an all-around exquisite romance. In honor of one of Shay's favorite radio icons, we'll call it a breath of fresh air.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Big Bad Wolf, by Suleikha Snyder
Review: Suleikha Snyder launches her new paranormal series Third Shift with this tale of criminal wolf shifter Joe Peluso and the lawyer and psychologist assigned to his case, Neha Ahlwulia. Snyder imagines an even darker timeline for the last four years, adding the discovery of supernatural beings into the mix and spinning the politics of intolerance and fascism into a dour dystopia of surveillance and civil rights violations. As a veteran of a secret special-ops team that turned humans into supernatural creatures, Joe Peluso is a force to be reckoned with. Gruff and hardscrabble, he's nothing like that kind of man Neha would expect to be drawn to. But when she tries to get to the bottom of why he murdered a pack of mobsters in cold blood, she can't deny the attraction. When a payback hit goes south, Neha ends up on the run with Joe. The novel pulses with action and suspense, and Snyder delivers brutally hot love scenes made all the more thrilling by the dangerous stakes they're cast against. Calling Joe a rough-around-the-edges hero would be an understatement. He's an alpha hero with the tongue and temperament to match. But readers might find themselves as surprised as Neha how much that surliness works for them. Joe and Neha aren't the only love story here; the novel has several POVs. It divides the attention a bit too much in places, but it's a solid ensemble action thriller nonetheless. Big Bad Wolf is a deeply dark tale of a dystopic present that very easily could be ours (minus the shifters and vampires, but hell, you never know). Snyder writes of intolerance, racism, and the forces that fuel them with prescient, disturbing timeliness. There's a brutality laced through these pages, one befitting its subject, but that might bruise those looking purely for escape. The darkness here is heavy, but Snyder allows love to pierce the gloom, a shining beacon of hope and purpose in the best and worst of times.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Shipped, by Angie Hockman
Review: Angie Hockman makes her maiden authorial voyage with this absolutely sparkling debut. Workaholic Henley Evans is consumed by her day job as the marketing manager of a cruise line and night classes for her MBA, but she's convinced it will all be worth it if she can channel it into a coveted promotion. Things get more complicated when she's tasked with competing for the position with her work nemesis, remote social media manager Graeme Crawford-Collins. They must draft a proposal on how to boost bookings in the Galapagos, and to give them inspiration, they go on a company cruise there… together. Once they meet in person, Henley starts to realize Graeme is nothing like the man she pegged him for. There's a cruise itinerary's worth of delights to love about Shipped, including zippy banter, superb use of setting, and a warm, fraught, and blissfully real central sibling relationship. But perhaps what it does best is gracefully wind through a host of compelling issues, including grief, work-life balance, ecotourism, and sexism in the workplace. It tackles each of these subjects with the sensitivity and heft they deserve, while never losing its effervescence. Shipped is a divine enemies-to-lovers tale, set against the backdrop of snorkeling with sea lions and hikes ending in breathtaking ocean vistas. It crackles with the potent romantic tension between Graeme and Henley from page one. But it never questions Henley's professionalism or shies away from portraying what her devotion to her job has cost her — while also championing the beautiful support system ready to help her restore balance and soar. Shipped is a testament to taking a chance on yourself, whether it be opening your heart to love or just living it up a bit more. It's as sunny and inviting as its tropical vacation setting, one of those books that makes the heart swell with joy. If readers crave an escape, it certainly offers one, but it also feels poignantly real. Shipped is a literary vacation I never wanted to end.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
The Worst Duke in the World, by Lisa Berne
Review: There's no other way to describe this fizzy historical romance than enchanting. The wry humor and witty banter explode off the page from the start. Anthony Farr, the Duke of Radcliffe, is duty-bound to remarry, but he'd prefer to spend all his time being a good father to his adorable 8-year-old son, Wakefield, and tend to his estate's prize-winning pig (named Duchess, naturally). But when Jane Kent, a long-lost relation of the Penhallow family, comes to town and befriends Anthony's son, the two can't deny the easy rapport between them — and the undeniable urge to kiss each other. Berne writes with nonchalant comedic timing, finding the laughs in everything from Wakefield's misuse of his precociously large vocabulary to Anthony's affinity for his prize pig. It's champagne in book form — bubbly, fun, and intoxicating far more quickly than one might anticipate. One gets the sense that Berne likes to have fun and isn't afraid to let her readers in on the gag. But even with the robust humor, the book is still heartfelt, focusing on Anthony's determination to avoid another miserable marriage and the hardships Jane faced growing up in poverty. Anthony and Jane are a giddy delight, two kindhearted souls who end up tongue-tied by their attraction to each other in the most charming ways. Even their love scenes spark with amusement and care, as they lead with consent and respect in all things. The Worst Duke in the World is a breezy, fizzy read that will cut through even the darkest winter doldrums.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
The Heiress Gets a Duke, by Harper St. George
Review: The Gilded Age meets the Victorian era in this across-the-pond mash-up in which an American steel heiress crosses paths with a debt-ridden duke. August Crenshaw isn't interested in marriage; she'd much rather maintain her progressive lifestyle playing a key role in the direction of the family business. But when Evan Sterling, the Duke of Rothschild, selects her sister Violet as his marital ticket out of financial ruin, August resolves to mar the plans — inadvertently making Evan realize she's the Crenshaw heiress he really wants. Based on the real-life 19th-century matches between wealthy American dynasties and bankrupt British aristocracy, the novel delves into questions of arranged marriage, freedom, and what it truly means to forge a love match. Of course, August's determination to never marry is challenged by her attraction to Evan. He's far more appealing than most dukes, in possession of good looks and a shadowy side business as a bareknuckle brawler. But ultimately, what makes Evan so appealing is his insistence that he will only marry August when she chooses it. Unlike her own father, he's dedicated to giving August the life and agency she deserves. The novel engages beautifully with the realities of history, delving into Evan's struggle to save his estate while also wanting to do right by August. St. George writes of their attraction with crackling chemistry, and headstrong August is a heroine readers will easily gravitate toward. It's a bit too by-the-numbers in places, but St. George finds her sweet spots steeping the love story in historical reality. It's easy to get swept up in the romance of this scenario, but she never loses sight of the hundreds of lives that are in Evan's hands or the need to let August make her own choices. The Heiress Gets a Duke is a glittering ballroom romance bursting with the industry and wealth that so define Gilded Age heiresses, but it also appreciates and foregrounds its history in crucial ways.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥