By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 03, 2020 at 07:30 AM EDT
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There is nothing like a romance for escape.

When the world is falling down around you and it feels like there's simply nothing but bad news, what is better than a guaranteed happy ending? Romances have always offered readers a balm, a chance to disappear into a world full of genuine emotion with the promise of a happily-ever-after. It's what makes them so gratifying as a source of literary comfort. Now, more than ever, we need fiction that takes us away (even if you're struggling to focus on the written word). Below, we review four new titles that offer the opportunity to do just that.

Hatchette Book Group

Cowboy Come Home

By Carly Bloom

Review: Carly Bloom returns to her Once Upon a Time in Texas series with Cowboy Come Home, a loose take on the Cinderella story. Claire Kowalski already made the mistake of giving her heart to cowboy Ford Jarvis once before, leaving her crushed when he disappeared into the sunset. Now that he’s back in town, she’s determined to avoid risking her heart again — but when Ford rescues her from a flash flood, the two can’t deny their fiery chemistry. Ford is also reluctant to pick up this dance, fearing a family “curse” and traumatized by the death of his younger sister, which he perceives as his fault. Bloom proved in her first novel of this series that she excels at upending stereotypes of the cowboy subgenre, and Cowboy Come Home is no exception. While Ford is softer than he’d like to admit to the world, he has to set aside any alpha-male tendencies to prove his love to Claire. Claire is a vibrant heroine, one willing to put her entire heart on the line for Ford and her family. She’s vivacious, determined to do right by her father and her devotion to her family’s ranch. Where Ford is taciturn and withdrawn, she’s bubbly and involved. But they find common ground in their quiet humor and sense of civic duty. Bloom writes with a genuine warmth that practically glows, her invented Texas town bursting with communal spirit, love, and fun. Claire and Ford have intense chemistry, but they’re more of a slow burn, luxuriating in each other’s company and bodies. There’s a booming industry of retold fairy tales in romance writing, but Bloom masters it by not staying slavishly devoted to her source material. The glimmers of Cinderella play out delightfully here, while allowing Claire and Ford’s story to stand on its own. Cowboy Come Home has a lived-in sensibility, returning us to the lives of well-worn characters with strong ties. Reading it is like snuggling under a cozy blanket, sinking into a space that feels comfortingly familiar, even without reading the first entry in the series. Fittingly, it’s like coming home, a surefire way to feel good. Bloom has a casual conversationalism to her writing, as well as an effortless naturalism, bringing this progressive, fun-loving Texas town to life in a way that feels both forward-looking and authentic. So much of Ford and Claire’s story is about trust — in each other, in one’s self, in one’s community — and Bloom understands the inherent risk and vulnerability of that trust. She writes compellingly of its costs, but even more profoundly of its rewards. All we know is that spending any time in Big Verde is a delight, and Bloom has invented a place we want to hang up our hat and kick up our spurs any time she’s got a story to tell.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B+

Avon Books

The Earl Takes a Fancy

By Lorraine Heath

Review: Lorraine Heath continues her Sins For All Seasons series with this tale of an illegitimate bookseller and the Earl who inadvertently wins her heart. Fancy Trewlove was born out of wedlock, but she’s determined to fulfill her mother’s wish of marrying into the nobility. Content managing her own bookshop and teaching others to read, Fancy finds her heart tempted by commoner Matthew Sommersby just before she’s due to make her debut in society. What she doesn’t know is that Matthew is secretly the Earl of Rosemont, an aristocrat who’s retreated after being widowed by a wife who entrapped him into a loveless marriage. While Fancy wrestles with her devotion to her family and fulfilling her mother’s grandest dreams for her, Matthew tries to avoid repeating the same mistake. Heath consistently offers lush, emotional romances, but this title is a particular gift for the many bibliophiles to be found among her readers. Much of the romance circulates around Fancy's bookshop, a cozy space where she seeks to empower disenfranchised members of the working class by helping them learn to read. Matthew first wins Fancy’s heart by agreeing to help with the lessons, and his grandest romantic gestures come in the form of gifting rare books. It’s like the Beast gifting Belle a library writ large in a series of increasingly swoony moves. Fancy is a divine heroine: kind, generous, and empathetic to a fault, while also completely capable of taking care of herself. We’re often trained to view kindness as a weakness, but Heath does a monumental job of underscoring its value, allowing it to make for Fancy’s greatest moments of triumph. In turn, Matthew is a devoted, caring lover, a man made overly cautious by his past. His secrecy is at times maddening, stretching the bounds of credulity even. But it results in such a lush romance that it’s hard to fault him too strongly. Heath has crafted a love story dedicated to the inherent romanticism of books; she understands the sensual, comforting, compassionate appeal of books, reading, and those that treasure them. The Earl Takes a Fancy possesses all her usual skill for devising romance, but more potently, it also celebrates a more deep-seated emotion and sense of connection familiar to any bookworm. For Fancy and Matthew, reading is the greatest expression of their love, the bookshop a metaphor for their devotion. It’s a resounding testament to the all-encompassing power of a good book or a well-stocked library, one that finds a profound beauty in quiet pages and verdant escapism.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

Carina Press

American Sweethearts

By Adriana Herrera

Review: Last spring, Adriana Herrera burst onto the romance scene with American Dreamer, the first in her stirring, revitalizing Dreamers series pairing steamy HEAs with social justice and stellar LGBTQ representation. American Sweethearts is her final novel in the series, and her first M/F pairing after three M/M entries. For those who’ve come to love the cocky Juan Pablo and the ambitious Priscilla over the course of the series, this is a chance to see them finally get their own love story. The two have been on-again, off-again sweethearts since their teen years, but after one two many fights, they’ve lost even a casual friendship. When Camilo and Tom’s wedding forces them back together, they can’t deny the spark is still there — but will they ever be able to put aside old habits and past wounds to admit they’re just what the other needs? Herrera knows just how to toe the line between an almost feral sense of yearning and a steamy release, so it’s no surprise she pulls it off again with aplomb. This entire series has been so joyful, a breathtaking celebration of love and family amid tight-knit immigrant and Latinx communities. American Sweethearts is the most delicious conclusion to all that. Pris has allowed her sense of duty to her parents’ sacrifices to dictate much of her life, a noble if unnecessary sense of obligation. In contrast, JuanPa has always lived life just as he wanted, until some intervening work with a therapist helps him learn to become the partner Pris needs — if only she’ll let him prove it. Herrera has a gift for delving into all the ways sexuality, particularly as it pertains to brown and black bodies, can be a social and cultural issue. This novel is no exception, with Pris’ dream being one of sex therapy and helping her community learn to embrace their sexuality in healthy, moving ways. Herrera, via Pris, plumbs all the ways brown and black sexuality is either policed or fetishized, allowing her heroine to work to free her community from these narrow, damaging dialogues with a vital, under-looked approach to social justice. Herrera has been open about drawing on the work of Audre Lord and the essay The Uses of the Erotic in her writing, but what’s so magical about her work is she takes these social justice texts that are often grounded in theoretical jargon and makes them living, breathing concepts. Through Pris and JuanPa, the essential radicalism and revolution of such concepts can reach readers amid steamy interludes designed to make your toes curl. As a social worker herself, Herrera has seen first-hand the trauma that so many of her characters wrestle with, either personally or via adjacent parties. But because of that, she also understands that the truest happy ending comes not only in a romantic partner, but in making peace with one's own damage and helping others to do the same. American Sweethearts is a resounding testament to the exquisite work she’s been doing this entire series. Dreams are fraught and fragile things, but Herrera knows just how to honor them; her work both nurtures and exposes the exquisite pain and triumphant glory of such dreams. Disney’s Cinderella quips that “A dream is a wish your heart makes,” but for too long the dreams of so many have been excluded as worthy of our fiction. Herrera acknowledges this and claims vital space for these obscured dreams, making her buoyant, beautiful series a triumphant act of social justice in itself.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

Harper Collins

If I Never Met You

By Mhairi McFarlane

Review: If I Never Met You is frothy rom-com that combines the British insouciance of Bridget Jones’s Diary with the fake relationship thrills of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Laurie never thought she’d have to worry about being single again, but when her boyfriend of 18 years suddenly ends things, she’s devastated. Making matters worse, she has to see him every day at the law firm where they both work. So when a chance incident leaving them stuck in an elevator leads office playboy Jamie Carter to suggest they fake a relationship for mutual gain, she’s game. Of course, as these things always go, the longer they maintain the charade, the harder it is to tell what’s fake and what’s real. McFarlane has a charming voice, one distinctly British in its wry humor, whimsical turn of phrase, and vibrant sense of setting. The book’s only major drawback is that Laurie is biracial, and her treatment in a story that is not Own Voices can bristle. While McFarlane does largely handle it with sensitivity and grace, one can’t help but feel that the nods to micro-aggressions and discussion of Laurie’s hair feel more like an insufficient stand-in for representation than any real stab at understanding (particularly when there are so many romance authors of color who deserve an equal platform). That said, the novel itself is a dizzy delight, bursting with rom-com tropes and misunderstandings, as well as a deep well of genuine feeling and heart. Neither Laurie nor Jamie is who the other sized them up to be, and it’s impossible not to share their rush as they fall in love. They each teach the other how to be the truest version of themselves, a touching reminder that core values matter far more than superficial constructs we’ve built to present ourselves to the world. Both Laurie and Jamie must grapple with loss and trauma, helping each other unpack it in ways so gentle they invite streams of tears. There’s a softness to the them, and the storytelling by extension, making the book the literary equivalent of someone tenderly cupping one’s face. It’s hard to resist its invitation to bask in its peculiar blend of melancholy and hope. There’s something intoxicating about the fake-relationship trope, a giddy whirl into romance that imperceptibly treads from its invented origins to something more real and deeply felt. The stakes are immeasurably high with each awaiting discovery, fearful that one or the other is simply too good at the ruse. Watching Laurie and Jamie dance around their feelings, to the point where I was literally yelling at the book, “He’s talking about you!” makes the payoff all the more delicious. Waiting for their realization that what they have is utterly real is a breathless experience that keeps the pages turning. If I Never Met You is quippy and warm, an escape in almost every sense of the word, and McFarlane’s irresistible voice that balances pathos and humor in equal measure, leaves us wanting more.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥

Grade: B+

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