Hot Stuff: August's best romance novels plumb grief as a powerful point of connection
We review 5 of this month's finest (and steamiest).
Grief is, in so many ways, the continuation of love. To quote WandaVision, what is grief if not love persevering? It's a complicated emotional experience, different for every single person, and it can lead us to cut ourselves off from those who have love to give, or lead to unexpected new connections. This month's crop of romance novels delve into the challenges of grief and guilt — how it shapes, stunts, and fuels love stories. Here, we review five of them.
Bombshell, by Sarah MacLean
Review: Sarah MacLean makes righteous female rage oh-so-sexy and empowering. Her books have always buzzed with a feminist undercurrent, but she devours misogyny and sets fire to the patriarchy with her latest, the first in a new series, Hell's Belles, which focuses on a group of women dedicated to unmasking heinous men and protecting vulnerable women. As London's favorite scandal, Lady Sesily Talbot is an expert at using her reputation as a light-skirt to uncover secrets and set dangerous plots in motion. Only one thing has ever felled her — her attraction to her sister's friend and co-tavern owner, American Caleb Calhoun. But Caleb, who has a mysterious past of his own, has avoided Sesily, all too aware he won't be able to help himself if he lets their chemistry ignite. When Caleb witnesses Sesily enacting one of her schemes, he's drawn into her orbit (and recruited by her sister to keep her safe). The two soon can't keep their hands off each other, becoming enmeshed in an obsessive need to protect one another while trying not to lose their heads and their hearts. Sesily is righteously incensed, a woman who uses her fury for productive ends and loves with her whole heart. She fights alongside a host of other women who use society's tendency to dub them odd or beneath their notice to obscure their shadowy actions, which have the potential to alter culture at its core. Caleb is a man who supports these women, even if he doesn't understand them, and fears for their well-being. At every turn, he's determined to take the fall, to put himself in harm's way to keep Sesily and others safe. But in the midst of their sexy escapades, he comes to realize that fighting alongside someone is so much better than fighting for them. It's not that he ever doubts Sesily, he just fears she's reckless. But Sesily and her compatriots prove that what others might see as reckless is actually meticulously plotted. It's a tribute to the fierce intelligence and incredible foresight of women, their uncanny ability to be ultra-prepared in a world that has conditioned them to know they're always in danger. MacLean's writing has a great deal to say about women now — about our desire to count men as our partners, confidantes, and lovers, while acknowledging the precarious state in which a world built for them leaves us. Underneath the steamy romance, there's a potent angst with real-world implications. It understands what women have always done to survive — fan the embers of a whisper network into a flame that could burn it all down. That heat, that passion, that worthy wrath is inked on every page of MacLean's novel — and it's rare that it feels so good to be angry.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
The Dating Playbook, by Farrah Rochon
Review: Farrah Rochon continues her Boyfriend Project series with this deeply felt and hilarious sports rom-com. Taylor Powell aspires to be the next great fitness influencer, and when it comes to the business of personal training, she knows her stuff. But after losing out on several opportunities due to her lack of a college degree, she winds up in dire financial straits. Enter former NFL player Jamar Dixon, determined to get back in the game after a career-ending injury not so much to save face as to honor a promise to his late high school best friend. Jamar hires Taylor to be his trainer under one condition — she'll keep it secret to avoid journalists and social media putting him under scrutiny until he's ready. She agrees, with the caveat that he'll promote her business once their venture is successful. But when a journalist spots them together and Taylor blurts out they're dating to cover up the truth, they must embark on a fake relationship grounded in genuine attraction. In almost no time, it becomes all too real, with public hand-holding giving way to hiking kisses for no one's benefit but their own. Taylor wrestles between her undeniable chemistry with Jamar and her fear that dating a client will undermine her career — all while trying to suss out a learning disorder and overcome the root of her educational stress. Rochon offers plenty of her signature girlfriend banter, as Taylor leans on pals Samiah (of last year's The Boyfriend Project) and London, often to laugh-out-loud effect. But much of Taylor and Jamar's journey is about learning to trust each other with the most vulnerable parts of themselves. Jamar wrestles with grief and a misplaced sense of guilt over his friend's death, pushing him to take risks that could permanently damage his body. Rochon is a stealthy writer, subtly layering in Jamar's grief and Taylor's trauma beneath the surface of her bubbly exterior. It results in a work that creeps up on you, a sneak attack as effective as a tackle you never see coming. That means readers get to both luxuriate in the warmth of Rochon's humor and steamy love scenes, while also seeing these characters lay themselves bare to probe what they can't face on their own. It's a winning playbook, brimming with Xs, Os and the reassurance of finding a supportive partner who sees you even more clearly than you see yourself.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Uncharted, by Adriana Anders
Review: Adriana Anders drops the latest in her Survival Instincts series, this time swapping the frozen tundra of Antarctica for the northern exposure of Alaska. Pilot Leo Eddowes careens into the wild to try to locate her target with enemies hot on her trail, but a crash landing turns things on their head. When she pairs up with Elias Thorne, America's most wanted, she is plunged into a race against the elements and their pursuers, wondering if she can trust Elias with her life and depending on him to save it. Anders believably crafts Elias and Leo's shift from mistrust to all-consuming attraction in record time, letting her narrative surge forward with shot after shot of adrenaline. She spins dangerous scenarios into unbearably sultry scenes, reminding readers of the lifesaving and lust-inducing power of the body. Both Elias and Leo are mourning the loss of their families, connecting over grief they've long buried. Uncharted lacks some of the urgency and deeper romanticism of the previous book in the series. Still, Anders knows how to keep readers on the edge of their seats, zipping from one breathless action sequence to another. But she's also an expert at drilling to the root of her characters' connection beyond their steamy "danger bangs." The mystery and risk at the heart of her drama never feel like they're purely for the sake of suspense. She delivers readers an electric world, zinging with intrigue, romance, peril, and raw sensuality. Even if you're not a risk taker, Anders' books will raise your pulse and draw you into their starkly cold, but surprisingly sexy literal and emotional wilderness.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
For the Love of April French, by Penny Aimes
Review: Aimes makes her debut with this tender, heartfelt tale of a girl who must learn to love herself to accept the love others have to give. As a trans woman, April French is used to being a layover at the kink club she frequents, someone there for a good time but never the long haul. But when Dennis Martin walks into Frankie's, their connection is immediate and intense, frightening April with how much she wants it. Both April and Dennis have baggage from past kink relationships that they're determined to avoid at any cost, even if it means trying not to risk their hearts when the moment calls for it. Aimes is a sharp writer, painting the world of Frankie's and her characters with deep affection and clarity. The novel is both a breath of fresh air for those who hunger for accurate representation of the myriad of communities depicted here, as well as an accessible entry point for those less familiar. The writing suffers somewhat from Aimes' desire to retell the events from both characters' points of view, making certain scenes and conversations feel repetitive. Readers might wish to skim those portions. But Aimes' book is bursting with such heart and such genuine reflections of two hurt people searching for someone to love them that it almost doesn't matter. April is a divine, fragile creation, aching to find a way to love herself in spite of all the work it requires to feel comfortable out in the world. Dennis is a dom, fearful of trapping someone in a power dynamic against their will, but with so much love to give. The two connect with bruising and steamy intimacy, offering readers a heartfelt take on the agony and the grace of learning to let someone see all of you and embrace it with their whole heart. It's perhaps the fluffiest BDSM story you'll ever read.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Battle Royal, by Lucy Parker
Review: Few writers excel at meshing humor and heartfelt emotion the way Lucy Parker does. Her latest is a rom-com about two rival bakers (and baking competition judges) who bond over their mutual lingering loss and find a soft place to land in each other. When Sylvie Fairchild was a contestant on Operation Cake, she famously irked notoriously curmudgeonly judge Dominic De Vere with her penchant for glitter and the fantastical. Now that their bakeries are across the street from each other and Sylvie has been recruited as a judge, their rivalry is about to ramp up — which is made only more intense by the fact that they soon find themselves facing off for a chance to bake the cake for a royal wedding. But as Sylvie and Dominic are drawn into goth Princess Rosie's orbit and her fight to marry the man she loves, they increasingly can't resist each other. It's a classic grumpy-sunshine pairing, which Parker flourishes writing, with Dominic all stern and brusque until Sylvie's effervescence melts his heart. Dominic escaped an environment of emotional abuse to live with his late baker grandfather, an upbringing that inspired his taste for minimalism. While on the outside Sylvie is all fairy dust and rainbows, she's nursing the still sharp grief of losing her aunt (her only real living family member) at 19. Parker's wit is wry and warm, with asides, one-liners, and hilarious references dotting the pages as liberally as Sylvie applies sprinkles. But underneath that biting sense of humor is a deep melancholy, couched in a visceral meditation on mourning. The way Parker writes of grief, how it stops people in their tracks, catching them off guard after years have gone by, is poignant and achingly real. Sylvie and Dominic's attraction works because they not only have the chemistry sparked by an enemies-to-lovers shift, but because they innately understand and see each other's pain. They're not helping each other heal — because after all, grief just changes, it never truly goes away — so much as providing a support system. Sylvie and Dom push each other to be better, uncovering and fueling each other's fierceness and vulnerability, respectively. Parker also knits in a perspicacious take on the toxicity of the royal family, most particularly the poisonous effect of the institution and the vulturous press. She crafts a genuine mystery surrounding a lost love. For good measure, she also manages to include reflections on those hungry for family, where lines get blurred, and how to pick up the pieces and build a solid unit of one's own in spite of trauma. Only an author as deft and gifted as Parker could seamlessly mix these things into one tale and have them come out as perfectly calibrated, delectably sweet, and emotionally layered as a masterful wedding cake.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥