By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 05, 2020 at 09:00 AM EST
Credit: Illustration by EW

October is for Halloween — unless it's the publishing world, in which case it's time to start dropping holiday titles. 2020 was no exception, and to be honest even non-holiday-themed romances feel like a festive escape in a year filled with doom and gloom. We need a little cheer early this year, and these four romances — two holiday titles, two regular releases — are the perfect present to unwrap.

Credit: Gallery Books

In a Holidaze

By Christina Lauren

Review: Searching for the Christmas spirit? There are lots of options, from putting on a favorite holiday album to making some hot cocoa to trimming the tree. But then there's In a Holidaze, a romantic explosion of holiday joy that will have readers drunk on its feel-good vibes quicker than a cup of eggnog. Christina Lauren excels at delivering dizzying, head-over-heels romance, but In a Holidaze is in the upper tier of their prodigious output. It wraps its reader in its cozy, jolly embrace like a beloved holiday sweater. Maelyn Jones is lacking in holiday spirit after making a romantic error of epic proportions and facing the possibility of it being the last Christmas at her favorite place on earth: a snowy Utah cabin where her found family unites every season. But when she wishes for the universe to show her what will make her happy, she ends up in a Groundhog's Day-esque time loop, reliving the same holiday over and over. Mae knows what she wants: the perfect Christmas, resolution from her years-old crush on family friend Andrew, and for the cabin to be saved. But can she figure out what being happy truly means and break the loop? Lauren wisely avoids spending too much times on the particulars of the science there, instead grounding the story in atmosphere and Mae's struggle to discern what being happy even really means. Andrew is the epitome of the best friend's hunky older brother, a girlhood crush bloomed into an intoxicating bundle of lanky, unexpected nuance. On the page, friends-to-lovers can often lack tension, but Lauren nails the steamy pent-up blend of fear and want that comes with careening over the edge from friends to something more. She distills how the holidays are both the most wonderful and most stressful time of year, the anxiety of properly savoring the moment often overwhelming the joy. Wrapped up in colorful Christmas paper, Holidaze is a tribute to holding our chosen family dear and having the courage to go after what you want. It's a tinsel-trimmed romance that will put even the grinchiest in the holiday spirit, so bursting with cheer that the smell of pine needles and glow of colored lights practically emanates from the pages. But it's also an important reminder that it doesn't have to be Christmas to make a list, check it twice, and seize what you want (even if it means being a little bit naughty).

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

Credit: HarperCollins

Spoiler Alert

By Olivia Dade

Review: Fan fiction has long been a space for wish fulfillment, allowing enthusiasts to correct unsatisfactory story lines and explore romantic pairings far from canon, and for marginalized people to put themselves in the narrative. Olivia Dade takes that notion and spins it into romance gold in Spoiler Alert, a tale of a fan, April, and the hunky star of a popular TV series, Marcus Caster-Rupp, who unwittingly bond on a fanfic server. When April's tweet of her plus-size cosplay goes viral, Marcus asks her out to spite internet critics, not realizing who she is in the fan-fiction community. The two bond, all the while wrestling with secrets and their tendency to hide their true selves from the world. Dade's book is a sparkling jolt of fangirling, body-positive swoons. Marcus stars on a thinly veiled substitute for Game of Thrones, speared via the novel's take on fan backlash, a disappointing final season, and cartoonishly villainous showrunners with latent misogynist tendencies. Dade weaves in pointed commentary about the tendency for television and much of pop culture to see "strong" women as a substitute for nuance and the limited ways we define "unconventional" beauty. April is fat, and she's done the hard work to love her body, in spite of her mother's hurtful, well-intentioned nagging and plenty of dicey dates and awful comments. Marcus, though a literal Adonis (Aeneas if we're being technical), has similarly faced self-doubt and struggled to accept himself, due to his dyslexia and his parents' disdain for his career choices. April wrestles realistically with sizeism, but by and large, she's gloriously body-positive, ready to throw Marcus over at the slightest indication that he perceives her body as a problem to be fixed (which, for the record, he doesn't). Marcus, in turn, is a provocative movie star hero, one who defies April's expectations at every turn and has spent his career convincing audiences he's a dimmer, far less interesting version of himself. Spoiler Alert is a buoyant tale of resiliency. It sags a bit in the middle, its pacing never quite hitting a sweet spot. But it's a powerful romance that lets April be unapologetically herself: a gorgeous, nerdy, vibrant woman unwilling to allow others to impose their narrow view of desirability on her. Though he's the movie star, Marcus must learn from April to be comfortable with vulnerability and own who he is. Using fandom and the fantasy of scoring a date with a gorgeous actor, Dade plumbs everything from how feminism often fails fat women to the courage it takes to be the truest version of oneself. Spoiler Alert is a bit like the rocks April admires so much — perhaps a bit rough around the edges, but a true gem in the end.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B+

Credit: Avon

Love Is a Rogue

By Lenora Bell

Review: Lenora Bell kicks off her new Wallflowers vs. Rogues series with this enchanting twist on Beauty and the Beast. Lady Beatrice Bentley is perfectly content being a wallflower, longing to escape to the family's Gothic mansion in Cornwall, where she's working on her etymological dictionary. But there, she finds a stirring diversion: navy man and contractor Stamford Wright, whose shoulders are as broad as the ships he sails on. When Lady Beatrice returns to London, she's determined to avoid the suitors and balls her mother pushes upon her, and she finds refuge in a bookshop she inherits. But the only man she can hire to convert it into a ladies' club for her fellow wallflowers is the infuriatingly distracting Mr. Wright. Bell's writing shines with all her usual whimsy. The hints of the Beauty and the Beast inspiration wink through in delightful ways, from her bibliophile heroine to servants named Coggins and Mrs. Kettle. Beatrice has always resigned herself to spinsterhood due to an injury at birth that induced paralysis in one side of her face. But it's Ford who helps her come out of her shell and see that spinsterhood isn't the answer, so much as finding a match who sees the best parts of her. Through their work on converting the bookshop, Beatrice comes into her own, learning to stand up for herself and show her true colors to the world. The two empower each other to defy convention and stop hiding themselves away from love and happiness. Bell writes achingly of the litany of reasons we count ourselves out before we even join the fight, capturing Beatrice's bloom with empowering muster. This is helped by the sheer force that is Ford Wright, a wall of man who turns a tool belt into a seductive gift. The central conflict is perhaps resolved a hair too easily, but it's excusable as an ode to the all-consuming power of love and a group of determined women. Beatrice is surrounded by a cadre of dizzyingly smart and quirky friends, who I assume will prove to be wonderful heroines in future books. Bell is skilled at crafting a warm world, populated with inviting characters. The dialogue is sparkling, lilting across the page. But above all, this novel understands and celebrates books and the readers who love them. Beatrice, and by extension, Bell, understands that books are so many things: an escape, a balm, a place to work things out and a soft space to land. Love is a Rogue is a love letter to bookish girls, a reminder that our greatest power often lies within ourselves — if we'll only have the courage to unleash it.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

Credit: Carina Press

Sweet on You

By Carla de Guzman

Review: Most readers in the U.S. are probably accustomed to a snow-dotted Norman Rockwell vision of Christmas. But one of the best parts of romance and its broad readership and subgenres is getting to discover other parts of the world and their customs, which is what Carla de Guzman offers with her Filipino Christmas romance Sweet on You. Sari Thomas loves her life as an inventive barista and cafe owner, but when a bakery opens next door, complete with a hunky baker and his attempts to steal her customers, it's war. Sari isn't going to let Gabriel Capras, a fancy boy from Manila, move in on her territory. But just as soon as their prank war starts, the two find each other as irresistible as their coffee and baked goods. Due to negligent parents, Sari has abandonment issues, while Gabriel wrestles with trying to prove he's man enough to his very traditional father. Because of this, Gabriel's career goals are destined to hit Sari where it hurts, but they have to learn to value their relationship above their emotional scars. De Guzman writes of the bustling shops of the laneways where much of the novel takes place with vim and vigor, bringing to life the Christmas nip in the air and the near-constant sound of church bells. It's a cheery portrait of this particular corner of the world, complete with Christmas traditions like Sambang Gabi, a devotional nine-day series of Christmas masses. The smells of Sari's exquisite coffee blends practically swirl off the page, followed by the delectable promise of Gabriel's baked goods. De Guzman allows Sari to be prickly and unapologetically ambitious, her issues with control and attachment rendered so realistically that her emotional growth is all the sweeter for it. Similarly, through Gabriel, she wrestles with cultural notions of machismo, challenging outmoded viewpoints about just who is supposed to bake and the concept of gendering professions on the whole. The writing excels because of De Guzman's perceptiveness, even if the pacing for a story that happens in real time over nine days can move in fits and starts. Sweet on You is mouthwatering in more ways than one, a holiday escape as fluffy and sinful as a Christmas pastry.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B+

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