By Maureen Lee Lenker
May 04, 2020 at 04:49 PM EDT
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Whether you are missing out on a tropical vacation or need to read about someone who's made it through the other side of their grief, April romances offer up just what you need. We could all use a literary light at the end of our tunnel, and these four titles should do the trick.

Avon Books

The Rakess

By Scarlett Peckham

Review: Female rage is all the, well, rage, and Scarlett Peckham taps into it with exquisitely excoriating detail in The Rakess, the first in her new Society of Sirens series. It follows Seraphina Arden, who is loosely inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, proto-feminist and mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Arden is a ruined woman who has spun her tattered reputation into a libertine radicalism as the titular rakess. When she retreats to her childhood home in Cornwall, she meets wholesome, widowed architect Adam Anderson and offers him a summer of pleasure, no strings attached. But when their fling forces them both to confront the pain of their past, they find something deeper than mere physical attraction. Peckham channels vivid, white-hot anger into her writing, a sense of righteous fury at the inequities and indignities dealt to women of the past and present. Her assessment of reputation and strident takedown of double standards about sex and desire are infuriating and empowering, and she pairs them with a divine sex positivity that allows her characters to pursue their pleasure without shame. The Rakess is also tinged with a deep melancholy; Seraphina has come to believe she must choose between her scandalous lifestyle and love, that true intimacy and regard aren’t afforded to a woman like her hiding behind the emotional armor of her dissolute wickedness. Adam helps her rediscover that she is worthy of love, while also learning the value of found family through Seraphina's own hard-won support unit. The Rakess has a strong Gothic flavor with its craggy, stormy Cornwall setting and interrogation of themes worthy of the Bronte sisters. But Peckham captures the sublime nature of the Gothic, while also infusing her storytelling with something breathtakingly human. There’s a lot of pain on these pages, even if it’s wrought with a poetic precision, but it makes the sparks of joy feel all the more palpable in a world so vividly determined to deny it to women.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

Hatchet Book Group

The Happy Ever After Playlist

By Abby Jimenez

Review: Abby Jimenez follows up her 2019 best-selling debut The Friend Zone with The Happy Ever After Playlist. Jimenez actually wrote this novel first, before going back and penning The Friend Zone as a set-up to it, but you would never know it so much stronger is the voice and writing. Playlist follows Sloan Monroe, still suffering from extended complicated grief two years after losing her fiancé. When a dog unexpectedly jumps in her car, Sloan takes the pup home and begins exchanging messages with its missing owner, Jason. Jason is immediately drawn to Sloan; he's also a musician on the verge of exploding into super-stardom. As Sloan begins to heal and find hope in a relationship with Jason, they have to contend with the relentless challenges of fame. Jimenez offers an alt- Star Is Born narrative here, one where Jason and Sloan’s relationship is a supportive, but not co-dependent antidote to the demands of the music industry. She delves into the darker side of fame, as well as the manipulative machinations of those at the top, particularly interrogating how female pop stars are sexualized and drug habits are fed to maintain disturbing levels of control. For the places The Friend Zone stumbled, The Happy Ever After Playlist shines. Jason and Sloan must learn to make compromises for each other, but they never compromise who they are. Jason is not the solution to Sloan’s struggles, but rather the light at the end of the tunnel. He doesn’t make Sloan better; she is able to make room for Jason in her life because of her own efforts to heal. They contend with real-world problems (if still occasionally falling perhaps too firmly into gender stereotypes for my taste), but their happily-ever-after isn’t the result of a fantasy or a miracle quick fix. Instead, it’s as carefully curated and crafted as the playlist of the title – one built with hard work, thoughtfulness, and above all, love.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

Atria Paperback

To Have and to Hoax

By Martha Waters

Review: Martha Waters makes a splashy debut with this pithy and charming historical rom-com that feels like what would happen if Friends were written by Molière (They don’t know that we know that they know makes a glorious cameo). Lady Violet Grey and Lord James Audley almost instantly fell in love five years ago, but they’ve spent the last four years of their marriage in chilly silence after an epic fight. When Violet races to be by James’ side after a riding accident, she is perturbed to find him in perfect health, leading her to enact her own revenge involving a staged diagnosis of consumption. Their hijinks increasingly escalate as they try to best each other, all in pursuit of making the other realize they’re still absolutely besotted with the other. Both James and Violet can be churlish and childish, at times making their fights seem strong arguments for why they’re actually ill-suited. Waters gives herself a steep hill to climb in that regard, and the journey can occasionally feel arduous. But for the most part, her dialogue sparkles, and she’s endlessly witty, as much a bon vivant as the cast of characters she’s created. She’s given herself a rich world to play in. Violet and James are in many ways a Regency rendition of Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice and Benedick, their banter and outrageous manipulations farcical and funny in the extreme. But there’s even more joy to be derived from the book’s rich ensemble, which results in the sensation of being plopped into a historical sitcom. After all, what is the modern sitcom if not a rendition of the time-honored tradition of drawing room farce? Readers should have no trouble providing a laugh track themselves, considering the dizzy situational comedy and charming antics that await them, all underscored by the most essential element of all – an abundance of heart.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B

Zebra Books

Island Affair

By Priscilla Oliveras

Review: In the first of new series “Keys to Love,” Priscilla Oliveras carries readers away on a tropical escape through the pages of a cheery, optimistic romance that casts island sunshine on even the darkest of circumstances. Things are looking good for social media influencer Sara Vance – her career is one the rise and she’s in recovery from an eating disorder. But when her new boyfriend bails on a family trip to Key West at the last minute, she’s left fearing judgment from her high-achieving family that has always made her feel the odd one out. Enter Luis Navarro, a local firefighter with some demons of his own. The two decide to fake a relationship for the benefit of Sara’s family, but soon, they find they might just be what they’ve been needing most. Oliveras has been steadily growing her presence as a romance author, one with a knack for heartwarming family ensembles and a cozy sense of home. But Island Affair is her strongest work yet, perfectly calibrating its inviting family scenes with a sweet, heart-melting romance. Oliveras has strong roots in Florida, and it’s reflected in her vivid rendering of Key West. Cooped up at home, it’s easy to be carried away by her descriptions of sun-soaked bicycle rides or achingly romantic sunsets. But they say home is where the heart is, and her vibrant sense of place stems from grounding her work in that emotional truth. Both Luis and Sara need to make peace with their families and heal old wounds. As they discover the reassuring footing of the solid foundation granted by a supportive partner, they are able to make space for acceptance. Oliveras handles all of this with care, writing sensitively of Sara’s eating disorder and Luis’ gnawing guilt and anger. Luis is surrounded by a large Cuban family, while Sara has always felt hers is more of  sterile institution than a tight-knit unit until they fumble toward a new closeness on this Key West vacation. Oliveras’ writing pops with the colors of everything from Vance family game night to dinners with Luis’ familia, crafting a warm portrait of togetherness from the all-too-relatable meddling and nagging of the people who love us most. Island Affair is a charming fake relationship romance made all the sweeter by Oliveras’ understanding that the best kind of love is one with room for the whole family.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

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