By Maureen Lee Lenker
June 30, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT
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There are few romance tropes as divinely delectable as the fake relationship — two people have to pretend to be in love for personal or professional gain, and then, oops, they really fall for each other. Even if the couple at the heart of a romance novel isn't faking a relationship, they're still probably faking something — their confidence, their identity, what have you. These five romances tackle the joys of faking it (but never, ever in the bedroom), whether it's a secret identity or the #couplegoals of a fake relationship.

The Boyfriend Project

By Farrah Rochon

Review: There’s so much frothy, heartfelt goodness in The Boyfriend Project, from deft, real depictions of female friendship to a swoony office romance, that it’s hard to know where to start. After Samiah Brooks discovers she’s been catfished by her three-timing boyfriend, she and the other two women, London and Taylor, make a pact. For the next six months, they will focus on themselves and their careers. No dating. It’s the perfect time for Samiah to dedicate herself to an app she’s always dreamed of developing. But that’s quickly complicated by Samiah’s new coworker, Daniel Collins, who has a secret of his own — he’s an undercover agent working to uncover financial crime in their office. Daniel and Samiah wrestle with what their growing feelings mean for their commitment to their careers and whether their attraction might derail everything they’ve been fighting for. Rochon underscores the value of relationships here throughout, both friendly and romantic, and how the right ones can prove fuel to our ambitions. The Boyfriend Project is rom-com joy, with delectable office vignettes and an irresistible “will they-won’t they” vibe. Rochon’s warmth and easy humor sing off the pages, but the book also has plenty to say: about female friendships, about showing up for each other, about trust, and about racism. As a Black woman in tech, Samiah ruminates on perfection, refusing to allow even one mistake to give someone an excuse to discount her or other Black women in STEM. She holds herself to an impossible standard, but Daniel helps lessen the load for her. The Boyfriend Project delves into the weight of expectations, ones we set for ourselves and ones laid upon us by others. It doesn’t suggest that love or friendship is the solution, so much as remind readers that sharing the burden with those who’ve got your back can be healing. I want to grab watermelon margaritas with these ladies, or at least join their group text. Between Daniel’s quiet intelligence, Samiah’s fierce ambition, and the humor and heart of Taylor and London, there’s no shortage of things to celebrate. Rochon is incisively funny, gifted at winging between laugh-out-loud scenarios, crackling banter, and pointed social commentary. The Boyfriend Project is vibrantly realized, a modern-day tale with real-world stakes that will leave you giggling and swooning from cover to cover.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

Conventionally Yours

By Annabeth Albert

Review: While buddy road trips and fan conventions are soaked in a nostalgic haze this summer as we grapple with a global pandemic, Annabeth Albert offers readers a heartfelt escape into both with Conventionally Yours. Alden Roth and Conrad Stewart have next to nothing in common, except that they both can’t stand each other. Alden, a neurodiverse bookworm, resents Conrad’s seemingly effortless popularity, while Conrad, whose life is secretly falling apart, finds Alden standoffish and condescending. When the two end up on a road trip across the U.S. to a massive convention and tournament for their favorite tabletop game, they discover all of their assumptions about each other were wrong. While they each could possibly stand in the way of the other’s dreams, they can’t deny the connection they forge. Albert writes crisply and sensitively of both Conrad and Alden’s challenges. Alden struggles to live up to his family expectations and connect with his peers, while Conrad is reeling from being cut-off (emotionally and financially) from his family after coming out to them. In both their cases, it grapples with what can feel insurmountable to young adults: finding acceptance and love, making your own way in the world, and coping with the expectations of your family. These are big subjects at play: abandonment, homophobia, neurodiversity, and finding a sense of purpose. But Albert tackles each of them delicately, balancing Conrad and Alden’s struggle and pain with the thrills of their joy. She celebrates the refuge they find in each other, how they both learn to believe in something greater than themselves through their relationship. All of this is laced with the distinct humor and winking sarcasm of the character’s voices. The game at the heart of the plot, the fictional Odyssey, is deftly crafted, with a true admiration for the tabletop gaming community. Albert keys into the more noble aspects of the game — the sense of fun, the escape, the haven it can offer. Through finding each other, Conrad and Alden also rediscover what made them love the game in the first place. Conventionally Yours is an ode to LGBGTQ+ joy, one that acknowledges the growing pains of young adulthood (pain that is often even more complex and traumatic for members of the queer community), but also resolutely claims a defiantly, deliriously happy future as birthright.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B+

Take a Hint, Dani Brown

By Talia Hibbert

Review: Talia Hibbert continues her Brown sisters series with this sublime fake relationship tale that lays bare romantic insecurities and the healing properties of trying your best. When security guard Zafir Ansari rescues academic Danika Brown from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, the video of their smoldering escape goes viral. It prompts the two to embark on a fake relationship, helping to promote Zaf’s sports charity focused on teaching kids the importance of mental health. Of course, as soon as the words “fake relationship” are out of their mouths, Dani and Zaf can’t help but fall for each other for real. Dani is a workaholic, an astonishingly confident and accomplished woman who firmly believes she’s not built for anything but casual sex. Zaf is a romance-novel reading idealist, who is still grappling with anxiety exacerbated by the tragic death of his brother and father. Hibbert has this incisive ability to cut right to the heart of something, and she does it again here with anxiety, grief, and feelings of inadequacy. She describes anxiety in piercingly true ways. Her books are buoyant with compassion. Zaf and Dani are filled with tremendous care for each other, with Zaf tending to the needs Dani forgets while consumed by her work and Dani’s profound ability to listen in all the ways Zaf needs most. They offer each other a safe place to land, even when Dani fights fiercely against the idea that she’s capable of the kind of romance she’s found herself in. In this winking, divinely funny tale of a fake relationship turned real, Hibbert finds space to unpick everything from toxic masculinity to racism in academia to romance as balm (shout-out to her Beverly Jenkins reference). It engages directly with popular criticism that romance is unrealistic, perhaps even detrimental, by framing it as Zaf’s saving grace in combatting his mental anguish. Happy endings, as Zaf points out, aren’t formulaic spoilers, they are safety nets. But it also takes care to validate those less engaged with romance with a capital “R” with its love for Dani just as she is, if only she’ll let down her walls. Like her heroine, Hibbert blends insightful literary and cultural commentary with a love story that’s exuberant, hilarious, and restorative. She writes with astonishing empathy, but never pity, both seeing and demanding the best in her characters and her readers. Take a Hint, Dani Brown is a burst of sunshine, as happy and bright as the daffodil yellow of its cover, and we’d gladly bask in its light endlessly.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

A Duke, The Lady, and a Baby

By Vanessa Riley

Review: Vanessa Riley gifts readers a sparkling love story with deep wells of faith and feeling with A Duke, The Lady, and a Baby. When Patience Jordan followed her new husband from the West Indies to Regency England, she never anticipated being so lonely. Now, widowed and thrown into Bedlam by scheming family members, Patience has to masquerade as a nanny for her newborn son while being overseen by her son’s new guardian, Busick Strathmore, Duke of Repington. Repington comes with a heap of trust issues, having lost a leg in the Napoleonic Wars. Riley’s light, lilting tone is all Austen, but she probes questions of madness and race like a Brontë sister. Patience could easily become Jane Eyre’s Bertha, an Afro-Caribbean woman declared mad by greedy, racist men. There is a touch of the Gothic to Riley’s story, but Patience has the Widow’s Grace, a secret society of widows determined to win justice for their members, on her side. As Patience works to secure a future for her son, she warms to the taciturn, schedule-obsessed Repington after witnessing his tenderness for her child. The two build a gentle romance, rooted in mutual trust. It’s refreshing to read historical romance that reflects the true diversity of the era. Patience struggles to stake her legitimacy in the aristocracy both because she is a woman and a woman of color. Riley honors that reality, while making Repington a hero who works with Patience to combat it. There’s genuine rage and fear here that Riley tempers not with empty promises or quick fixes, but endurance and joy.  Often, the romance plays second fiddle to the central mystery and Patience’s own journey to make peace with herself  in spite of the world around her. At its heart, The Duke, The Lady, and A Baby is about overcoming trauma, a testament to love forged in adversity – a love that both leaves space for and hastens healing. Riley knows how to spin a yarn built on faith and trust, that lilts along with the gentility and reserve of her characters.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥

Grade: B+

Hate Crush

By Angelina M. Lopez

Review: Angelina M. Lopez continues her sinfully delicious Filthy Rich series with a second novel that elevates her ability to blend soapy drama with steamy bedroom scenes and gut-wrenching emotion. When she was only eighteen and learning the art of winemaking firsthand during a California harvest season, Princesa Sofia Maria Isabel de Esperanza y Santos fell head over heels with aspiring rock star Aish Salinger. Just as Sofia is poised to make a risky bid to change the future of wine in her Spanish principality, Aish blows up their worlds by drunkenly revealing an explicit hit song is about her. The two must embark on a fake relationship to rehab both their images and ensure their dreams can thrive. But while Sofia has spent ten years trying to forget Aish, he’s been waiting a decade to win her back. The two are exquisite character studies: Sofia, a fierce leader of her people, driven by her yearning to feel needed, and Aish, a cocky, dissolute rock star who has to learn to respect the boundaries of the woman he loves. Lopez soaks readers in the heat of their attraction, the palpable tension of the sweep of Sofia’s chic haircut and the inexorable pull of Aish’s lean, tattooed body and cut-glass cheekbones. Her writing thrums with desire, while still delivering knockout twists and turns. Lopez keeps readers gasping with shock and pleasure in equal measure. If her debut Lush Money was exhilarating and heartfelt, Hate Crush is even more engrossing, an irresistibly fine wine that offers a bouquet of spice and surprise worth savoring.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

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