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What makes a romance more compelling than the already mystical experience of falling in love? Circumstance. Profession. Pre-existing relationships. And more. Our four picks for July 2021 offer up love stories with a hint of something extraordinary in the form of a rom-com weekend getaway akin to Austenland, a rock star, a priest, and a disinherited duke at their centers.

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July Romance

Too Good to Be Real, by Melonie Johnson

Review: Too Good to Be Real is the stuff of rom-com fantasies come to life. It offers readers the dream of Notting Hill resort, a LARPing experience that is like if Austenland were all your favorite '90s rom-coms. Journalist Julia is looking for a way to prove her worth to her editor and keep her job that comes in the form of reviewing this resort experience. But when she arrives, she has an immediate meet-cute with the dreamy Luke involving seagull poop and literally being swept off her feet. Luke is actually the game's designer, and he hides his true identity to attempt to not sway Julia's review, but the two can't resist their pull to each other. The rom-com resort is such an inventive setting, and any lover of those films will delight at the minutiae of the references with which Johnson liberally dots her pages. It's impossible to not wish it was a real place to stay after reading this book. Julia is part of a trio of friends, who travel with her, all finding their own brand of romance on the adventure — and it's these relationships and the love and care they have for each other that really make up the heart of the novel. Luke and Julia's chemistry leaves something to be desired, and their connection doesn't quite spark beyond the cutesy trappings of their rom-com moments. But the various scenarios Johnson devises are laugh-out-loud funny; her cast of characters is vibrant and engaging; and the book as a whole is the type of frothy escape readers long for. We just wish the romantic relationship packed as good a punch as the friendships depicted here. But perhaps that's somehow a metaphor in itself.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B+

 

July Romance

Hot Under His Collar, by Andie J. Christopher

Review: For those who've re-watched Fleabag season 2 an unholy number of times, Andie J. Christopher is here to slake our lust for another Hot Priest. At first glance, a priest romance novel might conjure notions of something sinfully taboo, even prurient. Instead, Christopher offers up an achingly introspective and heartfelt examination of faith, how we define what we're allowed to want, and the meaningfulness of love as a vocation. Father Patrick Dooley joined the priesthood to honor his mother's dying wish and nurse a broken heart. And while it fulfilled him for a time, he's wrestling with his faith and his increasing desire to break free from the expectations of his calling. Sasha Finerghty has spent a lifetime wanting things she can't have, suppressing her urges to fit into a family-approved "good girl" image. So, Father Patrick is just another off-limits desire to add to that list. But when Sasha's company volunteers to help raise the necessary budget for the church's pre-K program, the two are thrust into each other's company and no amount of rosaries can absolve them of their impure thoughts for each other. Patrick and Sasha truly see each other, the roiling conflict within the other, the weight of others expectations propelling and restricting their lives. For many, the seminal hot priest text is, of course, The Thornbirds — but let's be honest, Father Ralph, though deeply inviting forbidden fruit, is a jerk. What made Fleabag's Hot Priest the thirst object of so many women was his contrast to that: his deep capacity for compassion, his willingness to listen and forgive Fleabag when no one else would. Christopher understands that innately, making Father Patrick's sexiest attributes the same ones that make him a good priest — his empathy, his big heart, his concern for those less fortunate than him, and his willingness to put the needs of others before his own. Sasha thinks she wants something bad, simply because of the outmoded precepts of the Catholic Church. But beyond his vows and his temptation to break them, Father Patrick is decency personified. Christopher also doesn't shy away from the more problematic aspects of Catholicism and the modern church, the messiness of fetishizing and desiring a symbol of an institution that is responsible for centuries of abuse and misogyny. She acknowledges the very real internal struggle of belonging to a faith with outmoded social mores and still finding comfort in the ritual of it all. Patrick's crisis of faith and his desire for Sasha is less about getting off on something taboo, as it is about redefining what is sacred to himself. Christopher joins a rank of authors alongside the likes of Sierra Simone and Rosie Danan, who are able to use the complicated intersections of faith, sex, and desire, as a place to interrogate the deepest truths of our hearts and souls. There's something mystical about the work they're doing, a deeper understanding of the sacred and profane than anything one might get from an average pulpit. In spite of some fiery love scenes, what is striking about Hot Under His Collar is how pure, how decent it all feels. It's provocative, but only because it dares to imagine a vision of faith that leaves room for all the corners of one's heart.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

July Romance

The Duke Goes Down, by Sophie Jordan

Review: After discovering he was born out of wedlock, Peregrine Butler must cope with the entire dissolution of what he thought his life would be, having lost the dukedom he was poised to inherit. In his attempts to make sense of his new life, he comes up against the vicar's daughter, Imogen Bates, who has detested Perry ever since she overheard him cast aspersions on her personality at a summer party one night. But the two are drawn into each other's lives when Imogen begins spreading rumors about Perry around their village to "protect" the unmarried misses from his boorish ways. She soon discovers her loathing is actually more akin to acute attraction, and the two can't keep their hands off each other as Imogen helps Perry realize that a life outside of the aristocracy with a career and a purpose might actually be a more meaningful existence anyway. Jordan paints a vibrant picture of Shropshire, a village with so much more to offer beyond the ducal seat at its edges — and in the process, makes a firm argument for more historical romances that dare to live outside the ballroom or even the aristocracy altogether. Her love scenes crackle (don't worry, the book makes good on its deliciously clever title), and Imogen and Perry engage in delightful banter throughout. But the book gets off to a slow start with a few too many flashbacks and dips into the past. It also uses an incident of domestic violence in its climax in a way that diminishes the horror and impact of the situation, instead using it to reunite the protagonists in a throwaway moment for the victims. But for those looking for a historical romp that goes a bit further afield than a 19th century estate, The Duke Goes Down is a delightful diversion.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B+

July Romance

Exposed, by Kristen Callihan

Review: Kristen Callihan brings readers the newest entry in her VIP series, which catalogs the romantic travails of rock band the Kill Johns. The band's publicist (and cousin to the lead singer), Brenna, can't help clashing with bassist Rye, the lingering impact of her younger crush transformed to jealousy, biting banter, and sexual tension. But when Rye overhears Brenna complaining about her love life, he sees it as the chance to get something he's always wanted but never allowed himself to have: her. He offers her a deal, mutual pleasure with no strings attached, and thus begins their secret enemies-to-lovers romance that spirals into something deeper in almost no time at all. Callihan's writing is steeped in the sweat and sex of rock & roll, the heat and mystery of a great rock song seeping from her pages. Rye and Brenna's romantic collision is electric and unbearably sexy, selling their inability to keep their hands off each other from the word go. But Callihan also offers real emotional weight to their connection. Brenna sees Rye's hurt and vulnerability unlike anyone else in the band, and innately understands the role of music as his saving grace. Similarly, Rye is the only one able to demolish Brenna's PR armor of 5-inch heels and impeccable attire, getting at the lonely woman lingering underneath. Callihan quickly establishes through words and sultry looks and stolen moments that they're like oxygen to each other. The book lags in some places, a tad overlong, but what makes it work is its potency. Callihan's writing is a heady drug, her romance heavy, intoxicating, and sure to keep readers in its thrall.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

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