By Maureen Lee Lenker
December 04, 2020 at 06:20 PM EST
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Credit: Illustration by EW

As temperatures sink lower and we hunker down for a difficult winter, there's no better time to curl up with a good book — even better if it's one that generates a little bit of its own heat. This month's offerings feature a contemporary queer take on Pride and Prejudice, a romantic mystery, a story of a one-night stand turned something more, and a crackling historical anthology.

Credit: Avon

Written in the Stars

By Alexandria Bellefleur

Review: Alexandria Bellefleur makes her debut with this Bridget Jones' Diary/Pride and Prejudice-inspired rom-com about a fake relationship turned real. Elle Jones is one of the astrologers behind a popular new social media account, an unapologetic firework of a human being looking for someone to marvel at her light rather than douse it. Darcy Lowell is her opposite in every way, an uptight actuary who isn't looking for love after a devastating heartbreak. Their first blind date, orchestrated by Darcy's brother, goes disastrously wrong, but they realize a fake relationship could be the answer to getting their families off their backs. But once Elle manages to knock down some of Darcy's walls, things become all too real. Bellefleur has a droll, distinct voice, and her one-liners zing off the page, striking both the heart and funny bone. She has a gift for comedy, possessing more style and panache than a debut writer has any right to. Both Darcy and Elle fear never being enough, the risk that loving them will simply be too much to ask of anyone. But to find happiness, they must first be enough for themselves. It's a stunning rendering of what happens when romance is about meeting someone fully standing in their power versus the expectation that it will heal broken things we have to fix ourselves. There's a sparkling quality here, one that mirrors the starry title. Bellefleur writes as if she's captured fairy lights in a mason jar, twinkly and lovely within something solid yet fragile. This is Elle and Darcy too, a glittery girl and her perfectly imperfect, strait-laced yet vulnerable match. Bellefleur understands what has made Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy a couple that launched a million romance novels. It's the fizzy humor of enemies becoming lovers, yes, but more breathtakingly, it's about the power of vulnerability — how it can override arrogance, offer strength, and fundamentally shift who we are to each other. We like it very much, just as it is.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

Credit: Forever

A Lady's Guide to Mischief and Mayhem

By Manda Collins

Review: Manda Collins delivers a delectable mystery that reads like Victorian Moonlighting (with a good heaping of Nancy Drew's gumption). Lady Katherine Bascomb has a fondness for true crime, but when an article she writes leads to an inaccurate arrest in a case of serial murders, she can't help but feel guilty for interfering. To clear her head, she escapes to the country, only to stumble upon another crime scene, thrusting her back into the path of the infernally handsome Detective Inspector Andrew Eversham. Katherine continues to insert herself into Eversham's investigation, as well as his arms, and soon the two are teaming up to catch a killer. Collins writes with a brisk whimsy, her diverting characters popping off the page. The mystery and the romance are compelling in equal measure, with Collins adroitly threading the needle of her darkly amusing sense of humor, genuine suspense, and a deep sense of connection. The novel truly sings, however, when it comes to its themes of violence against women and the large groups of female audiences who can't get enough of true crime. Collins couches Katherine's interest in her devotion to enabling women to protect themselves. Having endured an emotionally abusive marriage, Katherine understands all too well how little power and safety women possess in their patriarchal world. She reminds Eversham and her readers of this fact, determined to crusade not only for justice, but also the right to dictate one's own destiny. The book bursts with pointed commentary on misogyny, particularly when directed at women's power and sexuality. But ultimately, it celebrates a cultural love affair with true crime as a way for women to exert some semblance of control over the chaotic (rarely random) violence that can dot our lives. Katherine's, and by extension Collins', notion of a happy ending is not only love with one who will hold you as an equal, but a prevailing sense of true justice that will allow women to sleep a little easier at night. Collins credits the podcast My Favorite Murder as an inspiration, and her novel is an encapsulation of how the show's motto, "Stay safe, don't get murdered," is not only a glib closing line but a genuine moment of outreach and care. A Lady's Guide to Mischief and Mayhem is wickedly smart, so engrossing it'd be a crime not to read it immediately.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

Credit: Berkley

The Boy Toy

By Nicola Marsh

Review: This tale of a one-night stand that becomes something more finds surprising depth and manages to spin an often-clumsy subject into gold. Thirty-seven-year old Samira Broderick has spent most of her adult life nursing the wounds of her failed arranged marriage to an unfaithful jerk. When she returns home to Australia, her goal is to repair her fractured bond with her mother, but she tumbles straight into a fling with stuntman and Chris Hemsworth lookalike Rory Radcliffe. Rory has a secret himself, a stutter he's struggled with since childhood. It's prevented him from seeking out speaking roles, until he gets a shot at a role of a lifetime. But when the dialect coach his agent hires turns out to be none other than his mind-blowing one-night stand, things get complicated. Marsh wisely sidesteps the issue of a professional conflict of interest, instead focusing in on Sam's need to heal from her past experiences with infidelity and infertility and Rory's stutter. The two keep secrets from each other, not wanting to complicate their desire with their baggage. But when Sam gets pregnant, they have to quickly re-examine what they could mean to each other. Recently, there have been a spate of romance novels that deal with the gut-wrenching issue of infertility, but it's far too common a trend to see the books magically resolve with a miracle pregnancy. The Boy Toy has a slight bit of implausibility when it comes to the one-in-a-million shot that results in Sam's pregnancy, but it also wisely gives a lot of leeway to the pregnancy itself and the attending issues that logically accompany it. I'm still holding out for the book that tackles the subject by allowing a woman to feel whole without a baby (or via adoption!), but The Boy Toy is at least thoughtful and considerate in the utmost when it comes to its approach. Rory's stutter is also deftly handled, an element that stems from Marsh's own experiences with a speech impediment. It captures his shame and frustration, while also leaving him ample space to grow. Marsh is also a naturally funny writer, her humor and liltingly provocative dialogue zipping readers through a story. The Boy Toy has a hell of a lot going on as it probes everything from cultural tradition to arranged marriage to infertility to speech impediments. It's true to life and the myriad of stressors we face at any given moment, but it does deprive the story of a certain amount of depth. Still, Marsh manages to tie it all together with humor and warmth, turning a one-night stand into a story with the emotional resonance to go the distance.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B

Credit: Sierra Simone

Duke I'd Like to F…

By Sierra Simone, Joanna Shupe, Eva Leigh, Nicola Davidson, and Adriana Herrera

Review: This new anthology draws you in with its deliciously dirty title and only gets more sinful from there. Five romance writers at the top of their game deliver steamy historical short stories. With the cheeky theme of dukes you'd like to, well, you know, they offer up stories that somehow all manage to be swooningly romantic and breathtakingly sexy. We've bestowed our full heat rating, but I think these ladies were trying to break the flame meter (or maybe just this reviewer). The stories kick off with Sierra Simone's "The Chasing of Eleanor Vane," about a young lady who falls for a dark and damaged duke with heaps of secrets. Simone consistently turns sex into sacrament, and her story is destined to leave readers on their knees once more. But from there, it's full steam ahead (emphasis on the steam) through Joanna Shupe's story of a debutante who hungers for her father's older friend, Eva Leigh's taboo tale of a governess who can't resist her charges' brother, Nicola Davidson's account of a sexual contract that turns to something more, and Adriana Herrera's erotic jaunt to Paris with a biracial healer and an unlikely duke. There are no low points here, with each story more intoxicating than the last. Shupe is a true queen of filth, expert at spinning heartfelt love stories alongside tantalizingly wicked scenarios. Leigh's governess story is adroit in its handling of power dynamics, undoing any issues of consent or power as skillfully as her duke unbuttons a gown. It's all the sexier for it. Davidson's entry is the funniest of the bunch, bursting with wry, quirky humor from her vivacious heroine waiting to be unleashed and the two lesbian pseudo-aunts who advise her. The laughs lace the story's heat with an extra burst of warmth. Herrera has a true talent for writing unapologetic heroines, and this is no exception as she delivers a historical yarn bursting with people of color who boldly claim their space in this world that has for too long privileged the romantic stories of exclusively white figures. The story's excursion to Paris helps end the collection on an electric, bohemian note that ties a scintillating ribbon around a set of stories that champions pleasure, freedom, and the courage to seize both in a quest for true happiness. Duke I'd Like to F… could be seen as merely a cadre of unbearably hot stories, if that's all readers desire. But this anthology is more subversive than a satisfying soupçon of smut. It bursts with heroines who unapologetically chase their desire and slake their lust, all while seeking a life built on consent, independence, mutual satisfaction, and being truly seen and valued for who they are. In some ways, this anthology encapsulates what the romance genre can be in miniature: a feminist declaration of the potently radical nature of sex, pleasure, and happily-ever-after.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

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