By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 24, 2020 at 01:05 PM EDT
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Illustration by EW

When it comes to writing romance, stakes are key. Make them too low and the journey to the happily-ever-after is dismayingly easy, but make them too high and the obstacles feel outlandishly insurmountable. In the hands of gifted writers, even the craziest of stakes can be steamrolled by the power of love (and if it's a vampire romance sometimes it involves actual stakes). This August we review five new releases that revel in their carefully calibrated stakes — and the happy endings waiting on the other side.

Avon

You Had Me at Hola

By Alexis Daria

Review: Alexis Daria invites readers behind-the-scenes of the hottest new streaming show for a steamy backstage romance. Jasmine Lin Rodriguez is committed to her new “Leading Lady Plan” after a messy breakup lands her on the front page of the tabloids. But when her new costar in the series she’s hoping will change her career is telenovela hunk Ashton Suarez, it gets harder to stick to her script. Daria is a genius at crafting the behind-the-scenes world of her novels, jumping from the world of reality television to scripted following her divine Dance Off series. The intricacies of on-set love scenes allow for both sexy scenes where rehearsals turn into something more and a deft examination of the crucial role of intimacy coordinators on set. Daria uses the particulars of the on-set world to enhance themes that are crucial in real life relationships like consent, communication, and empowerment. The cast and crew of the fictional show Carmen In Charge are almost entirely Latinx, and Daria and her characters revel in the comfort and ease of that rarity, which extends into the bliss of her storytelling. She furthers that by inserting sections of the action of the show, reflecting Ashton and Jasmine's own journey back through their characters in a meta twist. Jasmine’s story is about finding her inner strength and reclaiming her voice, while Ashton simultaneously must overcome his fears for a shot at success in all aspects of his life. There’s a secret baby subplot, but it refreshingly belongs to the hero. Daria both subverts tropes and exceeds them, proving amply that romance (and all fiction) isn’t about the formula, so much as what you do with it. It’s difficult to tread the line between allowing a character to come into her own, while also reflecting how a partner enhances her growth, but Daria threads that needle expertly. Jasmine’s Leading Lady plans gets to blaze as brightly as the central romance, which is essential to a truly satisfying HEA. There’s a defiant joy in these pages: a proud proclamation of not only finding, but celebrating your voice and honoring the rare spaces that welcome that. You Had Me at Hola is just such a space – a vibrant, bold jolt of romantic electricity.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

Avon

Like Lovers Do

By Tracey Livesay

Review: Tracey Livesay delivers a late summer firework with her second Girls Trip novel that turns the generally wet blanket trope of friends to lovers into a crackling, emotional journey that includes hammock sex (which, for the record, sounds hazardous until you read Livesay’s mind-blowingly steamy take on it). Dr. Nicole Allen is on the cusp of realizing her dreams. An already accomplished surgeon she’s about to begin a prestigious fellowship when her disciplining of an intern threatens everything. Her good friend and longtime roommate Benjamin Van Mont says he'll call in a favor with his powerful doctor parents (in spite of having declared himself the black sheep of the family). In return, Nic offers to accompany him on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard to dissuade the attentions of an ex-girlfriend in exchange. But as soon as this fake relationship begins, sparks fly. Ben and Nic have long held feelings for each other, keeping them under wraps only because their life goals don’t align with their vision of an ideal partner. But once they get to the island all bets are off. Livesay’s story is laced with heat from the first pages, and Nic is a marvelously sex positive heroine, taking care of her needs as she sees fit. She’s determined, committed to letting no man or romance dissuade her from the life she’s fought to build in spite of obstacles like racism, sexism, and classism. This is underscored by Ben’s ex Tinsley, who is the epitome of an entitled Karen. Livesay tackles those realities frankly, while also powerfully allowing the circumstances to only ultimately enhance Nic’s joy in a literal embodiment of success being the best revenge. Ben is Nic’s foil, hunky, compassionate and hungry for a family. His own privileged upbringing means he comes with blindspots that Livesay handles deftly. There are romances that would expect Nic (or Ben even) to make concessions to reach their happy ending, but so much of the quicksilver thrill of Like Lovers Do comes from avoiding that trap. Instead, they both learn how to enrich rather than detract from their goals. Nic is uncompromising as a heroine, and it’s a breathtakingly rare and beautiful thing to see brought to life. Her ambition and self-possession are so tenderly wrought, a love letter to the realities of being a “strong woman.” It takes a lot of courage to live unapologetically as a woman, and even more so as a Black woman. Livesay delivers a triumphantly hot tale of a woman who refuses to make herself small – and the gift of a best friend and lover who champions that. Like Lovers Do is a celebratory intersectional feminist manifesto. And did we mention the hammock sex?

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

Berkley

Mr. Malcolm’s List

By Suzanne Allain

Review: This witty Austen-esque romp, which is soon to be a motion picture, is a sparkling twist on the Regency-era ballroom scenes and misunderstandings that litter historical romance. Jeremy Malcolm is an arrogant and wealthy man cut from the same cloth as Mr. Darcy. His titular list is one of qualifications for a wife, one designed to help him find the perfect woman. When Selina Dalton arrives in London, he thinks he’s found her at last. But what he doesn’t know is Selina has reluctantly agreed to help her school friend, the haughty Julia, enact revenge on Mr. Malcolm for his unattainable standards. Things are further complicated when Selina realizes Jeremy might not be the cad Julia has painted him to be, but rather her romantic ideal. Allain’s writing is wry and delightful, borrowing skillfully from Austen’s distinctive use of free indirect speech. The book is bursting with witty asides and droll commentary, a tongue-in-cheek discourse designed to have us both laughing with and at the cast of characters. Allain nails the style she’s paying tribute to and the novel is an imminently readable diversion. It’s missing the undercurrent of melancholy and social commentary that make Austen’s stories universal and endlessly fascinating. But for a wisp of a novel, it’s not short on laugh out loud moments and elegantly escapist tableaus. It’s an amuse-bouche of a story that delights and tantalizes without holding any pretenses that it’s anything other than the best sort of endearing frivolity.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥

Grade: B+

Always Only You

By Chloe Liese

Review: Chloe Liese crafts a wry, and heartfelt romance that delves into everything from neurodiversity to chronic illness. Frankie Zeferino may have a heart of gold, but thanks to her autism and her rheumatoid arthritis she’s learned to put up emotional walls to avoid the painful feeling of being a burden to those she loves. For hunky ginger professional hockey player Ren, those are lesser obstacles than the fact that Frankie’s role on his team’s staff as social media manager makes her off-limits. The two share an undeniable attraction that stems from their intense care for each other, but can Frankie accept that someone might see her as a person rather than a problem to solve? Liese writes painstakingly of Frankie’s inner life: how her autism and her RA symptoms shape her perception of the world, the constant adjustment she makes to put others at ease. It’s raw and real, but all buoyed by Liese’s innate sense of humor and warmth. Ren is a dreamy hero – an absolutely stacked hockey player who is secretly a Shakespeare nerd (SWOON). But it’s his tender care for Frankie and all those he loves that makes him a real standout. Liese injects delightful quirks and specificity into her storytelling from Shakespeare quotes to Frankie’s own Harry Potter obsession, and it makes the central relationship feel vitally real and alive. There’s plenty of heartrending moments, from Frankie’s outreach to Ren’s autistic sister to Ren’s attention to detail for the sake of small gestures. These are two kind-hearted people, who go through the world with so much care, but they’ve also convinced themselves that they are destined to never truly belong. Liese expertly weaves their own insecurities together to tell a story of the silent struggles we all face and how our differences only make us more deserving of great lives and loves. It’s a love letter to all who’ve grappled with feeling alone, while also a deeply personal look at the realities of chronic illness and neurodiversity. Always Only You is a feel-good novel that embodies its heroine – prickly, idiosyncratic, and off-beat on the surface, but at its heart, tender, vulnerable, and deeply felt.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

Entangled Publishing

The Revolutionary and the Rogue

By Blake Ferre

Review: 19th-century Britain virtually rules the historical romance subgenre, but the past several years have seen an uptick in more varied settings. Blake Ferre shakes things up with a male/male romance set during the French Revolution in the midst of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. Perrin de Vesey is a British aristocrat who’s spent the last year mired in grief after the death of his lover, but when a chance meeting with French officer Henri Chevalier stirs his desire, the two have to choose between love and duty. As member of Robespierre’s forces, Chevalier has the power to send Perrin to the guillotine for looking at him funny. Worse, Perrin is a member of the Crimson Rose, an organization for men who love men, but also a force working to extricate innocents from France. Led by the mysterious Scarlet Crest, the Crimson Rose (down to its rouged title) has direct parallels to another undercover literary figure of the Revolution: the Scarlet Pimpernel. This book has the potential to be a fast-paced adventure: one of forbidden love cast against a tale of espionage and divided loyalties. But Ferre’s writing retreads the same beats too many times, turning what should be a hair-raising rescue mission into a disappointingly thin plot point. Ferre’s research is impeccable, and the French Revolution is a dizzyingly exciting setting for a romance. If you’ve ever wanted Javert and Valjean to just make out, this is the book for you (yes, I know, wrong French Revolution, sue me). As Henri wrestles with the gap between his revolutionary ideals and his duty, the novel digs into the pitfalls of revolution and the risk of replacing one tyrant with another. There’s potent material there, and it would benefit from pushing even further on that front. The chemistry between Henri and Perrin crackles, their dance of attraction a heady one. And the cast of supporting characters lends the romance a vibrant framework (petticoat loving Quill is a particular highlight). But just as Henri and Perrin must learn to marry the yearning of their heart with their ideals, The Revolutionary and the Rogue needs to more smoothly knit together its forbidden romance with its adventure plot. The guillotine was meant to make executions swift and painless, and with a few adjustments, this historical romance could be as sharp and potent as its blade.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B

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