Hot Stuff: New romances find the sexy and swoony amidst sibling rivalry
Our siblings can drive us crazy — they know how to push our buttons better than anyone else, and they're the ones we're stuck with from birth. Because of this they make excellent fodder for drama and angst within a romance novel (and no, we don't mean incest).
Whether it's a the wealth of adventures that comes from a romance series that explores the travails of the romantic relationships of every sibling in a big family or something even more angsty than that (try falling for the woman your brother jilted at the altar), sibling dynamics provide plenty of inherent drama that provide the perfect backdrop for romances that range from cuddly to taboo. We review four new February romance releases that mine the storytelling potential of strong familial ties.
The Worst Best Man
By Mia Sosa
Review: Imagine the perfect wedding cake – it’s a confectionary marvel, a work of art, one whose wisps of frosting lend the cake a delightful sugar-spun coating. It’s richly layered, satisfying, and never too sweet. That’s what Mia Sosa delivers to readers on a silver platter with The Worst Best Man, her new rom-com that’s layered with plenty of heart, humor, and real-world pathos. Wedding planner Carolina Santos had her worst nightmare come true when her fiancé left her at the altar at the behest of his brother and best man, Max, so the last thing she needs is to run into the two of them when a huge career opportunity is on the line. But Max Hartley is also looking to escape his brother’s shadow and partnering with Lina on her pitch might be just what he needs to excel as a marketing expert on his own terms. As the two, begrudgingly at first, work to win Lina the job, they can’t deny a growing attraction to each other – one that threatens to bulldoze the carefully constructed emotional walls Lina has built. The Worst Best Man is rom-com perfection, from its wedding-based setting replete with fairy-tale settings and Lina’s deft hand as a planner to its warm banter that lends the characters a vibrant buoyancy. Sosa also laces the story with much of her own Brazilian heritage, weaving it in as an essential part of Lina’s DNA that allows her hang-ups about displays of emotion to hit even harder. Lina is wary of ever letting her guard down; once burned, she’s terrified of being perceived as too emotional or unstable – something that’s increased tenfold by the fact that she’s a woman of color. The way Max pokes holes in her defenses is initially what Lina sees as the last thing she wants, but slowly Lina comes to realize that finding someone she feels safe enough to do that with is the thing she needs more than anything. In turn, Max has spent his entire life competing with his older brother, and he worries that a relationship with Lina would always be colored by his fear that she was only doing it to prove a point. Sosa calibrates these utterly relatable fears perfectly with the zanier aspects of her rom-com (who among us has not accidentally joined a couples retreat?). Her voice is fresh and fiercely romantic, as the bursts of humor are weighted with the beating heart of emotion palpable on every page. She understands that true nakedness is not about stripping off one’s clothes, but allowing one’s emotions to flow freely – and pairs actual nakedness with the inherent humor and awkwardness of life. She has a knack for bawdy wordplay (“Big Lick Energy!” “Stream of cocksciousness!”) that infuses the book with an extra level wit and humor that creates truly laugh-out-loud moments. Sosa has a gift with words that’s infectious and wry, one that keeps the pages turning in delight. There’s an inherent vulnerability in love, choosing to fully share oneself with another person and trusting them with one’s heart and soul. Sosa plumbs that risk with beautiful, heart-aching realism, while packaging these concerns with a confectionary casing of witty repartee, crackling chemistry, and steamy interludes. So much so that losing oneself in this love story is a piece of (wedding) cake.
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A Cowboy to Remember
By Rebekah Weatherspoon
Review: Rebekah Weatherspoon kickstarts her Cowboys of California series with this contemporary riff on the Sleeping Beauty legend that offers all the attendant warmth of the best fairy-tales. Evie Buchanan is poised for stardom with a spot on a morning talk show and delicious culinary skills, but when a rival pushes her down some stairs, causing an accident that leaves her with amnesia, she has no choice but to start over. That’s where Zach Pleasant, her teenage crush, comes into the picture – coming to her rescue after she’s shut him out for years, Evie can’t remember why she ever would’ve cut this handsome cowboy out of her life. As she struggles to get back to normal, Zach tries to avoid making the same mistake that cost him the one thing he loves most in this world. Weatherspoon has crafted a vibrant world to play in, one with a dude ranch of epically sexy and entertaining figures, a place replete with laconic cowboys and Oscar-winning actresses who don’t suffer fools. To boot, everyone in this world, save for the gleeful villain that causes Evie’s injury, is a genuinely good, well-intentioned person. It’s a balm to read a novel where the characters are predominantly kindhearted folks who work hard and love harder. The book is largely low on angst, which gives it slightly less urgency than some of Weatherspoon’s previous works – but reading it is like stepping into a warm embrace. Zach is a cowboy that walked straight out of a dream (and he literally does appear out of Evie’s dreams) – a former rodeo champion whose rippled body is only matched by his profound concern and tenderness. His biggest flaw is simply that he cares too much. In contrast, Evie is a career woman, one suddenly unfettered by her memory loss. It’s a frightening (and classically soapy) prospect to consider, but in a world where everything’s a frenzied rush, it’s ironic that it’s escapist fare for someone to find the time they need for self-care and self-examination only when literally forced to do so by a brain injury. Weatherspoon excels at writing characters perfect to spend a day with – fun, earnest, well-intentioned human beings who are just the type of people we all hope we to be when we’re at our best. Zach and Evie are a sensual pair, yes, but more importantly, they truly exhibit care for each other, performing acts of service and finding each other’s greatest faults in the sacrifices they choose to make for others. A Cowboy to Remember is about a woman rediscovering her roots, establishing the familial bonds that make one feel grounded and life worth living. But it’s also a firm reminder of the choices one makes to maintain that family, and what healthy, emotionally nourishing relationships (platonic, familial, and romantic) should look like. Weatherspoon does all this without ever dipping into saccharine territory, always making her characters feel utterly alive and real. Most refreshingly, her cowboys don’t fall prey to any of the traps of toxic masculinity that can overwhelm the sub-genre. Instead, it engages only with the positive aspects – the boot-knocking inherent sexiness of cowboys; the hard work of maintaining a ranch; and the natural ethos of family and community. In an anxious time, A Cowboy to Remember is a weighted blanket of a book.
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By Lisa Kleypas
Review: With the sixth book in her Ravenels series, Lisa Kleypas offers up what just might be the best of the bunch – a charming, amusing, heartfelt tale of how the right person can upend our firmest beliefs about ourselves. Tom Severin, a powerful railway magnate, has the world at his fingertips, but after a brutal upbringing, he’s convinced himself he’s incapable of love. His frozen heart proves an obstacle when he meets Lady Cassandra Ravenel, a stunning woman determined to marry for love. The two have instant chemistry, that flickers and leaps off the page, attendant in everything from a shared dance to the way they look at each other to their alchemically funny banter. Kleypas’ writing has an innate and sparkling sense of humor, one that goes down like fine champagne. Tom is a portrait of stern masculinity -- tall, thin, and ambitious, with a tender heart he’s unable to recognize within himself. He’s protected himself against hurt for so long that he’s firmly limited himself to five emotions, reluctant to open his heart to the complicated, messy nature of feeling. But Cassandra inspires things within him that he’s never before acknowledged, and she, in turn, finds a considerate, caring, conscientious man. They have an undeniable physical connection, one that bursts forth in swoony passages like a stolen nighttime waltz, but it’s their emotional bond that truly swept me off my feet. Tom thinks his heart is frozen, but he couldn’t be more wrong, modeling enthusiastic consent at every turn in toe-curling ways. "Consent is sexy" might make for a cute catchphrase, but it’s also breathtakingly, tantalizing true in practice as demonstrated on the page. In some ways, Kleypas is an old-school romance author, having first been published in the late 1980s. But her work is a clarion call for readers and writers mired in the past, particularly when it comes to consent. She writes with the times, adapting to shifting mores while never losing her singular voice, proving that what’s sexy and romantic is an evolving target achievable by writers willing to put in the work. Kleypas is a romance gem, a queen among a vast royal court of historical romance authors, and Chasing Cassandra is a welcome star in her brightly twinkling constellation of interstellar romantic achievements.
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By Synithia Williams
Review: For those that love their romances on the soapier side with a hearty helping of taboo angst, Forbidden Promises is the perfect escape. It’s a delectable slice of soap opera complete with loveless marriages, dynastic families, and clandestine meetings. India Robidoux has been in love with her brother’s best friend Travis Strickland ever since they shared a drunken night crackling with chemistry years ago. But then Travis married her sister, and she tried to forget him. But when India comes back to town to find her brother running for Senate and Travis tantalizingly single, she has to grapple with her feelings and her loyalty to her family. Williams knows just how to toe the line between soapy deliciousness and deeply felt emotion. While some might raise their eyebrows at the taboo nature of sleeping with your sister’s ex-husband, Williams so expertly crafts both Travis and India’s undeniable connection (and guilt), and compellingly reveals the machinations behind the failed marriage that it’s impossible not to root for them. She also weaves themes of personal independence, family loyalty, and classism throughout, lending the love story extra heft. India struggles to both honor her deeply entrenched loyalty to her family and claim the happiness she deserves. Similarly, Travis must face his family, who believe his relationship with the Robidoux clan and his career choices are a betrayal of his working-class roots. Together, the two must wrestle with their mounting desire and what it means for their already strained relationships with their families. Williams threads the needle, making it simple to yearn for the success of this central relationship while empathizing with their familial guilt and sense of responsibility. Forbidden Promises is a deeply felt, engrossing, soapy romance that manages to both luxuriate in its angst, while also interrogating something far more wide-reaching and universal than the admittedly sexy taboo appeal of its central conceit.
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