By Maureen Lee Lenker
January 04, 2021 at 06:35 PM EST
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2020 was a year many of us would like a do-over on. Because after all, what's better than a second chance?

Luckily, fiction can provide where reality fails and our final romance selections of the year revel in the gift of second chances. Whether it's rekindling an old romance or healing the wounds of an abusive past or tragic family history, the heroes and heroines of these four novels are all about that fresh start.

How to Fail at Flirting

By Denise Williams

Review: Denise Williams makes a fully-realized, emotionally nuanced debut with How to Fail at Flirting. Naya Turner is still struggling to recover from an abusive ex, burying herself in her work as a college professor. But when her friends push her to step outside her comfort zone for one night on the town, she meets a charming stranger, Jake, who throws her completely off-kilter. Soon, they’re challenging each other in the best of ways, helping to rebuild one another’s confidence and heal the wounds of her past. But things get extra complicated when it’s revealed that dating Jake could have serious implications for her career. Williams expertly balances Naya’s fear and baggage with her warmth and humor, believably building her journey of recovery. With his dad jokes and puns, Jake is disarming and supportive — one of those romance heroes who rightfully will give readers the expectation of deserving the same level of care, emotional intelligence, and tenderness in a partner. It’s billed as a rom-com, and Naya and Jake are both genuinely funny, but that descriptor perhaps undercuts the novel’s very serious grappling with abuse and infidelity. The romantic scenes veer from steamy to swoony as Williams layers the physical attraction with the deeper spark and naturalism that belies the fact this is a debut novel. This is a romance, yes, but it’s also a powerful exploration of how abuse and trauma shape us and the resilience and courage it takes to step fully back into one’s power. Naya’s journey of self-love to how to be a more whole partner is every bit as inspiring and emotional as the novel’s central heartfelt romance. The descriptions of abuse and resurgence of the abuser may be triggering for some readers, but they’re never gratuitous. Instead, they make it clear just how big a mountain Naya has to climb. Williams handles a fraught subject with sensitivity and empathy, allowing her happy ending to shine all the brighter. How to Fail at Flirting is a warm romance that bursts with realism and celebrates the symbiotic power of love and healing.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

Ten Things I Hate About the Duke

Review: Loretta Chase is one of the most well-respected and beloved historical romance authors ever, meaning a new novel from her is always a cause for celebration. Her latest, Ten Things I Hate About the Duke, continues her Difficult Dukes series. As an outspoken young woman, Cassandra Pomfret has earned a reputation as something of a shrew. In an attempt to rein her in, her father rules that her beloved younger sister Hyacinth can’t marry until she does. But when a drunken incident puts her in the path of the wild Duke of Ashmont, she has to choose between her reputation and marrying a man famous for his flaws. The book is rife with historical detail, and it draws on both Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and its modern counterpart Ten Things I Hate About You with sparkling inventiveness. While most romances have one to two points-of-view, this novel is more erratic, jumping between a large ensemble of characters. It’s a bit confusing and takes the attention off the romance too much in places, but it does help create a vibrant, rich world for the love story to play against. Chase’s strengths lie in her world-building and her playful sense of humor, but the romance doesn’t sing quite as much as I’d wish here. Still, if readers need a historical diversion bursting with charm, they can’t go wrong with this title.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B

Second Chance on Cypress Lane

By Reese Ryan

Review: Plenty of second chances abound in this charming small-town romance. When a romantic scandal sends rising star reporter Dakota Jones back to her small South Carolina hometown with her tail between her legs, she’s focused on taking a breather and rebuilding the life she worked so hard for. What she doesn’t need is to run into the first guy to break her heart, high school sweetheart Dexter Roberts. But Dexter has already regretted the way things ended, considering he sent her away to stop her putting her dreams on hold for him. The novel is a slow burn of their reconnection, as Dexter makes earnest attempts to rekindle a friendship all the while struggling to deny his burning attraction for Dakota. Dakota has a case of the lady doth protest too much, dragging out their obvious connection a bit too long. It’s understandable given how she’s been burned before, but the book loses its momentum in her determination to avoid a serious relationship with Dexter. Still, Ryan writes with humor and warmth, building an inviting place on Holly Grove Island that readers will want to return to again and again. At its core, the novel is Dakota’s tale of learning how to separate her own desires and dreams from the ones she’s been convinced she should hold — and how Dexter fits into that. It also flits with the role race, identity politics, and the weight of our parents' expectations might hamper or complicate growth — but the novel could stand to dig a little deeper. For a purely feel-good read with plenty of homespun charm, look no further than Second Chance on Cypress Lane.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B+

The Pearl

By Tiffany Reisz

Review: Tiffany Reisz brings her erotic Godwick trilogy to a scintillating, gripping close with The Pearl. When Lord Arthur Godwick discovers his idiot younger brother has tried to pay his gambling and whoring debts with a prized family painting, he agrees to work off the tab in the bed of the establishment’s owner, Regan Ferry. Arthur’s family has a long connection to The Pearl, Ferry’s notorious luxury den of inequity, but his lustful ties to Regan pitch him headlong into a supernatural tale of passion and pleasure. Reisz is a master of the erotic, concocting scenarios steeped in artistic and cultural history that lend them the thrum of something ancient and unknowable. While Arthur has spent years denying his true self, Regan has built a gilded cage of her own misery that Arthur’s love must shake her out of. The Pearl is many things — an erotic romance laced with the taboo, a rumination on the lasting scars of family sins, and an exploration of the links between desire, art, and the eternal. Reisz not only writes exquisitely tantalizing bedroom scenes, but her writing casts a heady spell that draws you into its world of mystery and vice from the first page. She knows how to weave a story that oozes sinful magic, dark and delectable at every turn. Reisz’s writing excels at mood and tone, and here, she offers readers something distinctly baroque — a novel that is equal parts lush, forbidden, and enticing.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

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