By Maureen Lee Lenker
October 05, 2020 at 03:31 PM EDT
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Credit: Illustration by EW

Whether you're looking for a romance as cozy as a blanket or as hot as a roaring fire, we review five new fall titles for you.

Credit: Berkley

The Roommate

By Rosie Danan

Review: Billed as a “raunch com,” The Roommate both absolutely fits that bill and defies the implications of that Judd Apatow-tinged label. It’s more feminist, more tender, and sexier than anything that term suggests. Rosie Danan’s debut follows Clara Wheaton, the buttoned-up daughter of an elite East Coast family, who makes her first ever impulsive life choice to pursue her childhood crush to Los Angeles. Only, he ditches her as soon as she gets there, leaving her to bond with her unbearably hunky roommate, whom she quickly discovers is a popular adult performer. Josh is dedicated to reminding women they deserve better sex, and after he teaches Clara this valuable lesson, the two embark on a project designed to tackle the stigma against female desire. The Roommate is a towering inferno of steam, a novel with a risqué premise that belies its abundant heart and profound sense of yearning. For a book that doesn’t flinch when discussing pornography, it’s refreshingly vulnerable, tearing up any assumptions readers might have about the seedier sides of the business to celebrate equitable pleasure and consent (while also getting real about the abuses that can plague the industry and sex work more broadly). It does away with tragic backstories that lead to a life in porn, instead grounding character’s choices in de-stigmatizing desire and championing pleasure for all. Danan, and by extension, her characters are dedicated to divorcing shame from sex. The interludes between Josh and Clara could spark a five-alarm fire, but the novel blends that with Josh’s unexpected sweetness and Clara’s courage. Danan’s voice is sparkling, witty and direct. She’s able to pivot from disarming pop culture references to electric sex scenes to frank heart-to-hearts that mask deep pools of want with stunning ease. The Roommate might offer a hard-core premise, but it’s gloriously soft and joyful, a sex positive manifesto inside a deliriously romantic, wickedly shameless love story.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

Credit: Avon

Her Night with the Duke

By Diana Quincy

Review: Diana Quincy delivers a diverse, own voices historical romance that will leave readers clamoring for more. On one fated rain-soaked evening, Lady Delilah Chambers and Elliot Townsend, Duke of Huntington share a heated night of passion in a roadside inn. It should be a simple one-night stand, but things get complicated when Elliot discovers Leela is the stepmother of his soon-to-be betrothed. It’s deliciously taboo, an undeniable yearning that could cause the scandal of the decade. To make matters worse, Leela is already the target of social and racial prejudice due to her Middle Eastern heritage and the fact that her mother was the daughter of a middle-class merchant. Quincy weaves this into the story as deftly as the reality of it, echoing the sinister subtle and trenchant nature of racism. Leela is a truly breathtaking heroine, a woman who is not only a tender, caring stepmother and a scorching lover, but also an astute businesswoman and travel writer. Elliot’s respect and attraction for Leela’s pursuits only deepens their yearning, the sense that their meeting was meant-to-be even if it’s put them in a tight spot. We talk often of the need for non-white and non-Western points of view in historical romance, and Quincy offers a sparkling gem that straddles both of those, a firm reminder of how many women’s stories have been scrubbed from the pages of history. It’s delicious that Leela herself is a writer, doubly proclaiming her existence in cold, hard ink. The book stumbles a bit on forging Elliot and Leela’s connection via sexual liaison, leaving compelling reasons for them (and readers) to see their attraction as mere lust. But it’s Leela’s tenacity, her dedication to her travels, writing, her family and her identity that make the story sing, drawing us inexorably under her spell. The book suffers from an epilogue that will no doubt infuriate many readers. After hundreds of pages of unprotected sex under the presumption that Leela is barren, the epilogue finds her magically basking in the joys of motherhood. Authors and publishers, I am begging you: please stop doing this. It is offensive and devastating to those struggling with infertility, particularly because it reinforces the suggestion that a true happily-ever-after can only come with children. This book would be better if the epilogue simply did not exist. Despite its missteps, Her Night with the Duke is a shimmering tale of a taboo connection turned empowerment narrative, as both Leela and Elliot must learn to claim the life they deserve, society be damned.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B+

Credit: No Bird Press

Naughty Brits

By Sarah MacLean, Sophie Jordan, Louisa Edwards, Tessa Gratton, and Sierra Simone

Review: It’s rare we review an anthology in this column, but they are an essential part of romance publishing – a chance for readers to enjoy stories that are more decadent amuse-bouche than indulgent full courses. Threaded together by an agricultural sustainability gala at the British Museum, the stories in this collection probe different corners of Britain from a family-owned pub in Wales to a university professor’s office in London to a ducal estate in Devon. The stories are sublimely escapist, sexy romps that are heavy on the steamy interludes, but still laced with deeply emotional and lushly romantic love affairs. Some of the stories are stronger than others, more adept at believably building both intellectual and physical connections and enriching the pay-off of the happy ending. MacLean writes her first ever contemporary story, and demonstrates that whether her dukes are prowling 19th-century Covent Garden or are camera-shy 21st-century lords, they’re equally as tantalizing. Her gift for language and propulsive yearning shines in any setting and at any length. Sophie Jordan’s story delves into that of a self-help author a la Eat, Pray, Love and her bodyguard, a swiftly piercing look at how to need someone without sacrificing any part of oneself. Louisa Edwards delivers every Anglophile’s fantasy of meeting the British movie star of one’s dreams and falling irrevocably into a whirlwind love affair. Gratton, new to writing romance, offers a tale of a pub owner and former soldier with less than pure motives in the most uneven entry in the collection. Simone closes it out with one of her signature searing, erotically charged tales, steeped in religion and sex as holy sacrament. There’s something here for everyone who just needs to escape into steamy tales of irresistible Brits. While the stories certainly offer a bouquet of delights when it comes to the sex, they also are renewing reminders of how quick and fragile love can be. They each capture something elemental and intoxicating about intimacy and human connection. Their affairs are torrid, but also wholesome, earnest, and deeply romantic. It’s a perfect fall diversion, the stories crisp and inviting as an autumnal U.K. day. Naughty Brits is the type of anthology expertly curated for curling up with a cup of tea and getting cozy (though you might want to forego the blanket, as the pages contain all the heat one could ever need).

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

Credit: Berkley

Well Played

By Jen DeLuca

Review: Jen DeLuca returns to her glorious world of Ren Faire romance with this warm follow-up to last year’s Well Met. This time we follow buxom Stacey, a Willow Creek wench who’s hungry for change. After a drunken night that hammers home the rut she's stuck in, Stacey messages Dex, a kilted hook-up from a traveling band. To her surprise, the hunky musician writes her back, and they kindle an emotional connection unlike any she’s known. But the thing is, it’s not Dex, she’s writing all this time, it’s someone else in a Cyrano de Bergerac worthy twist. Stacey wrestles with trust and feeling emotionally stunted, having stayed in her hometown to care for her mom after a medical emergency and never working up the courage to make a change. Her romance shakes her out of her doldrums and offers her a shot at a new life, if she’s brave enough to take it. DeLuca has built an evocative, delightful world in only two Ren Faire books. Returning to the Willow Creek Faire feels as comforting as slipping on a pair of well-worn leather breeches. It’s an inviting and lively setting, one that allows the pages to be dotted with taverns, drinking songs, and just the right amount of huzzahs. Well Played doesn’t have quite the undercurrent of melancholy that helped Well Met pack its extra punch – like its heroine, it’s sunnier, possessing an altogether lighter touch. But that doesn’t lessen the joy it has to offer. Stacey’s conundrum, her fear of breaking away from her parents, will be familiar to many who have stayed closer to home for medical or economic reasons well into their late 20s or 30s. By their nature, romance novels relay their love stories through words, but it takes a special gift for pacing and verbal alacrity to build over half of a love story through text and email. DeLuca has, in some ways, crafted an epistolary romance, dotted with poetry and beats of potent written connection. It blazes to life all the more brightly once the characters return to each other’s in-person orbit, perhaps even offering an appropriate pandemic blueprint for how a courtship of correspondence can flare into a heated romance when handled with appropriate care. Stacey finds her greatest joy at the Faire, looking forward to its return each year. In DeLuca’s hands, we’d have to agree – there’s endless tales and excitement to be found in this world, still one of the freshest, most engaging concepts in romance a year after she introduced us to it. A hearty huzzah for Well Played.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

The Duke Who Didn’t

By Courtney Milan

Review: Courtney Milan returns with her first full-length historical in several years. The Duke Who Didn’t follows Chloe Fong, a young ambitious woman dedicated to helping her father achieve success (and revenge) with a delicious fermented sauce he has created. Chloe has long nursed feelings for Jeremy Wentworth, a charming, witty young man who comes to their village once a year for an annual festival. But Jeremy has kept a secret from Chloe (and the entire town) – he is the Duke of Lansing, the man who happens to own their entire township. As major publishing houses still are testing the waters of how to deliver diverse historical romance, Milan does much to push the sub-genre forward in this regard. Jeremy is half-Chinese, a duke who wrestles with identity and acceptance. Chloe herself is Hakka, a Chinese ethnic minority, and embraces who she is in every way from practicing ancestral devotion to a more equal view of the sexes for the 19th-century. Wedgeford, the village where Chloe lives, is full of Asian people, a community sprung up from a diaspora making a home in a new land. Milan isn’t precious with this, and there’s a sense of liberation and resiliency that bleeds from every page. There’s no fear here of tempering this to meet outdated expectations, only a fierce love for the culture on unabashed display. This is conveyed in every inch of the text, from Milan’s mouthwatering descriptions of food that contribute to a key aspect of the plot to how the characters assess and claim their version of what it means to be British. These questions of identity are the novel’s strongest suit, as the romance is just all too amiable. Romance readers taste range from fluffy to angsty, but The Duke Who Didn’t plays with structure, avoiding conflict with a studied determination. How much you enjoy this tact likely depends on the level of soul-searing angst you prefer in your romance, and inarguably, we could all use gentler reads right now. But on the whole, it’s not particularly effective, lessening the novel’s stakes and derailing narrative urgency, especially when it comes to the romance (which is the whole point). With The Duke Who Didn’t Milan takes a massive swing on multiple fronts, with some hits and some misses, still ending with a respectable batting average overall.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B

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