Hot Stuff: June 2021 romance novels offer pirates, gods, and Hollywood glamour
It's officially summer, which means it's time for reads as hot as the thermometer. What better than a romance novel to whisk you away on a mental vacation, whether you're stuck at home or lounging seaside? June's crop of new romances offers plenty of escapes, whether you want lady pirates who commandeer houses instead of ships, sinfully good takes on Greek myth, or an emotional journey through Hollywood moviemaking.
One Last Stop, by Casey McQuiston
Review: Casey McQuiston follows up her smash debut, Red, White & Royal Blue, with this altogether stranger and more soulful novel. Cynical 23-year-old August is new to New York City when she meets the mysterious and entrancing Jane, a girl with a leather jacket who saves August from a coffee spill. But when it turns out Jane has been trapped on the Q line since the late 1970s, never aging, never moving on, August starts to ponder how to free her — and if she even wants to. One Last Stop is a love letter to found family and queer history, a tale of finding one's place against all odds and upending the narratives the LGBTQ community has too long been forced to accept as a pittance of representation. August has spent her whole life running, so the last thing she expects is to find a sense of home in the quirky collection of characters in her Brooklyn apartment and a girl lost in time. But Jane forces August to question everything: the hard-won rights and ease of living openly she's taken for granted, as well as the possibility that magic and the unexplainable can exist. Meanwhile, Jane is intoxicated by the description of the decades she's missed, the possibility of walking out of the subway hand-in-hand with a woman with a much-diminished threat of violence. As the two fall hard for each other, they learn lessons about family, belonging, and sacrifice. McQuiston's prose is millennial poetry, the lyricism of her work butting against one-liners and a winking sense of humor ripped from the Tumblr generation. One Last Stop is more of a slow burn than McQuiston's debut, intent on building a layered and powerful history that leads to an impactful third act. There's perhaps less whimsy here, but that's by design. If Red, White & Royal Blue is a queer fairy tale, One Last Stop is a punk anthem — an angrier love story about soft people whom life has given hard edges. While Red, White & Royal Blue was about rewriting history, One Last Stop is about plumbing its depths, unearthing the stories left invisible, and acknowledging and embracing everything our ancestors — the ones we're related to by blood and the ones we share a spiritual connection with — have won for us. It probably would've been wiser to fictionalize events rather than drawing on real historical moments in some instances, as certain twists run the risk of trivializing or subverting genuine tragedy in problematic ways. And it offers too rosy a view of how far we've come since the '70s without really digging into the lingering systemic challenges we face when it comes to racism, intolerance, and homophobia. But the book is deliberately celebratory, a tribute to drag queens, pancake houses, and subway crushes, and a giant middle finger to gentrification. Everything in its ethos champions the misfits of this world, reminding us that there's a beautiful place and person out there for everybody — even if it means being brave enough to touch the third rail.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Neon Gods, by Katee Robert
Review: After using Disney villains as scorchingly sexy fodder, Katee Robert turns her pen to the thirstiest deities of all: the Greek gods. She taps into the immortal truth of the horniness of the capricious gods of Olympus with a modern retelling of the Hades and Persephone legend. When society darling Persephone Dimitriou is cornered into an engagement with Zeus by her mother, she flees the upper city of Olympus, crosses the river Styx, and strikes a bargain with Hades, a man she once believed a myth. But as his attempts to protect her and seek revenge on Zeus intensify, the two cannot deny their connection. Robert doesn't quite give her gods the magical omnipotence of their predecessors. Instead, the Thirteen are an all-powerful ruling body of honorific titles exerting power over the city of Olympus, a modern metropolis somewhere in North America. Hades has quietly overseen his lower city without interruption from the others for more than a decade, building a working-class neighborhood that embraces community, industriousness, and empathy in contrast to the power plays of the upper city. It's a clever contemporary take on mythology, and Robert continually finds inventive ways to weave in mythic detail, including Persephone's pomegranate and Cerberus, the three-headed dog who famously guards the underworld. But it's done so deftly that even those with a more passing knowledge of the myths will find plenty here to love. Robert is a master of erotic tableau, crafting sequences and scenes that are hotter than, well, Hades. And Hades is the type of brooding, wounded hero romance novels were made for — a foil to the smarminess of golden boy Zeus. He has naturally protective instincts, and his failure to keep the ones he loves from harm feeds his inner turmoil. Persephone presses all his buttons, stumbling into his life and finding a sense of home she once believed was only possible outside the scheming of Olympus. At times, their connection seems predominantly physical. Robert paints a clear picture as to why Hades and Persephone are a match, but there's certainly room for a bit more grounding of the relationship beyond their electric sexual chemistry. Still, both Hades and Persephone are irresistible in their own right, making them combustible when they're together. And Robert is a genius at world-building, creating a compelling Olympus that will leave readers eager to return. She fans the flames of the underworld to sinful effect, casting a dark spell with the potency of her slightly more mortal gods.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
One Week to Claim It All, by Adriana Herrera
Review: If Jane the Virgin met Succession, you would get something like this, the latest novel from Adriana Herrera. When Esmeralda Sambrano- Peña unexpectedly inherits her father's media empire, she sparks a conflict with Rodrigo Almanzar, her father's longtime protégé — but late-night meetings lead to passion. Esme is illegitimate, her father's child by his great love before he married for prestige and wealth. She's spent her life wounded by his rejection of her and determined to forge her own path. Rodrigo is her other biggest regret in life, the boy who got away, seemingly choosing loyalty to her father and his career over her. As Esme has to fight to prove herself the right choice for the top job, she and Rodrigo can't resist rekindling the chemistry that never really went away. But she wrestles with whether she can trust him and if their renewed connection might disrupt the job she's determined to secure. Set in the cutthroat world of telenovelas, One Week once again asserts Herrera as an inventive, essential voice. Herrera's work is just one sterling example of how often Harlequin category romances are underestimated. They, more than any other romance novels, are often written off as formulaic or hastily written. Herrera's story is a resounding reminder how off-base such dismissive attitudes are — how category romance leaves room for inventiveness; swoony, elegant writing; and exceedingly relevant subject matter. One Week to Claim It All debuts shortly after In the Heights has sparked cultural conversations about colorism in media, particularly in the Latinx community. Here, Herrera delves into all that, with Esme seeking a renewed focus on an Afro-Latinx presence in the content her father's empire produces, acknowledging what true inclusivity and representation look like. The novel is a quick read, easily devoured in a single sitting, and it's got plenty of steamy interludes to scratch that particular itch — but Herrera is consistently one of the most prescient, thoughtful romance writers today, always finding compelling ways to weave vital topics into her scorching-hot love stories.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels, by India Holton
Review: India Holton makes her debut with this absolutely off-the-wall tale. It melds the Victorian wit of Sherlock Holmes with the brash adventuring of Indiana Jones with the absurdity and literary references of Jasper Fforde. While Cecila Bassingwaite may seem the portrait of Victorian femininity, she possesses a penchant for blackmail and thievery as a member of the Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels. Assassin Ned Lightbourne has orders to kill Cecelia (from another member of the society) but promptly falls for her, spurring a sprightly feminist tale that will either delight or perplex readers. Perhaps both. Holton's absurdist tale offers a vision of 19th-century England where a secret society of women live out their days as pirates — not on the high seas, but commandeering and flying houses (country cottages, palatial estates, Windsor Castle, you name it). It's completely bonkers and requires a certain level of buy-in from page one that may cause the reader to lose the thread of the plot (especially the romantic one) in the midst of all the mechanics of pirating a flying house and adhering to the rules of the society. It's laugh-out-loud funny but also a tad difficult to follow. The villain, Morvath, believes himself to be a descendant of Branwell Bronte, hellbent on rectifying the poetic memory of his male ancestor who must live in the shadow of the legacy of his prolific literary sisters. That sets up a fascinating thread of misogyny, poking fun at men threatened by women's power and success and celebrating the communities that women forge to protect themselves and their interests in a world that thrives on patriarchy. That Holton manages to combine pointed commentary on the beginnings of modern feminism, tongue-in-cheek jokes about Mary Shelley's predilection for graveyard lovemaking; and a ribald swashbuckling adventure is a feat in itself. The literary ride could be a bit smoother, but maybe that's just inherent to piracy.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Reel, by Kennedy Ryan
Review: Kennedy Ryan is one of the finest romance writers of our age, and she offers readers another marquee title with Reel. When Broadway understudy Neevah Saint is discovered by hotshot director Canon Holt during her debut, he is convinced she's the only one to play forgotten jazz singer Dessi Blue in his long-gestating biopic. Dessi is fictional but modeled on the likes of Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. Neevah is swept up in the glittering world of Hollywood and the grueling schedule of film production, but she can't resist the pull of attraction between her and Canon. Canon has been burned by a past affair with a leading lady, but when fate brings them together, their passion ignites. Neevah's accelerating lupus complicates things — for both their relationship and her future as a star. Ryan's gift as a writer is her knack for setting (you would think she's worked extensively as a director and producer in Hollywood given how accurately she captures the world) and her ability to keep so many balls in the air at once. Reel is jam-packed with threads, one of which alone would be fodder for multiple novels. But it never feels dense or overwrought, instead all feeding into each other. She probes the truth of people of color having to work twice as hard to get half as much, as well as the creative legacies and visions of the extraordinary Black artists who have paved the way (and perhaps even been forgotten). But amid those truths there's all the bracing reality of chronic illness, the ways it upends and rewrites lives. Neevah finds both tragedy and unexpected healing in the curveballs her lupus throws her way, and Ryan writes affectingly of the rigor required to master the mental obstacle course of such a diagnosis. Threaded deftly between her tale of creative Black excellence and the gauntlet of chronic illness is a heart-shatteringly great love story — a romance that is crackling hot and cuts to the bone. Neevah and Canon are both overcome by the cost and vulnerability of loving someone, but they choose to anyway. Their love is all-consuming, beset only by external factors, not their own devotion to each other. Only Ryan could pull off such conflict, bringing readers to tears by the final pages with not only their love story, but her heart-rending assertion that the dark sky is necessary for the stars to shine bright. Rest assured, she and this book do.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥