By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 04, 2020 at 08:38 PM EDT
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Summer lovin', had me a blast.

We love to associate the summer with romance: vacation flings; hot, sticky summer nights; that sultry feeling in the air that it makes it feel like anything's possible. There's no better time to read romance then this season designed for lovers. For July, we review five new titles that offer everything from sweet escapes to darker delights.

Daring and the Duke

By Sarah MacLean

Review: Sarah MacLean brings her epic Bareknuckle Bastards series to a fiery end with a grovel novel of epic proportions. For two books, Ewan, the Duke of Marwick, has stalked the Bareknuckle Bastards in search of his long-lost love Grace, only to discover that Grace is not dead as he’s been told but instead the queen of the Covent Garden underworld. Finally, these two star-crossed lovers must face their trauma, answer for their sins, and wrestle with the love they still bear for each other. As children, Ewan broke Grace’s heart, betraying her and his brothers for what she has always believed was a grab for a title and money. But in a Sarah MacLean novel, nothing is ever as it seems. She created a tall order for herself, building Ewan up as a truly diabolic, possibly mad villain in the previous two novels. Grace is so far above him in goodness and purpose, her inability to resist him feels its own form of madness at the start. In laying him low, MacLean at times makes Ewan a bit too toothless. The fight literally goes out of him here. But it’s a delicate dance that ultimately pays off as she weaves a portrait of a man who needs to learn to listen. He wants Grace, but only on her terms, and it’s strange and wondrous to follow a man who masters that restraint. Grace was a placeholder for the title Ewan now holds, but she’s the one with BDE (that’s Big Duke Energy), a woman who is truly master of her domain in ways more far-reaching than Ewan could ever imagine. MacLean engages with complex faults of the patriarchy throughout, interrogating women’s pleasure and the threat that men perceive when it is taken rather than given. In the midst of a novel that spans the rooftops of Victorian London from Mayfair to Covent Garden, she probes questions of identity and internalized misogyny, her writing ripe with lust, forgiveness, and the female gaze. Daring and the Duke is about making peace with our trauma, acknowledging it, and building something better from its ashes. Like her heroine and hero, Daring and the Duke is stealthier and quieter in its attack than the previous two books in the series. It’s a sly approach, one that might initially feel muted to fans of MacLean. But by the time it explodes into its inferno of a conclusion, it’s clear that we should never doubt MacLean’s ability to pack a punch as world-shaking and fierce as the book’s heroine.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A-

Boyfriend Material

By Alexis Hall

Review: Boyfriend Material is effervescent, sparkling with the vim and vigor of its biting wit, deep feelings, and irresistible banter. Luc O’Donnell is a mess, the son of two rock stars, who makes a fine art of blending Harry Styles’ level insouciance with profound self-loathing. When one compromising tabloid photo nearly costs him his job, he resolves to clean up his act, at least on the surface. If he can prove he’s capable of a normal relationship with a wholesome partner, that will be just the ticket, which opens the door for Oliver Blackwood, a buttoned-up barrister who could give Bridget Jones’ Mark Darcy and his crisply starched suits a run for their money. The two are like oil and water, but as they embark on their publicity-friendly fake relationship, they realize they could be each other’s saving grace. Both Oliver and Luc wrestle with inadequacy and self-doubt, external forces conspiring to convince them they will never be enough. They’re both masters of self-sabotage, but simultaneously prove to be just what the other needs, offering healing and understanding while still foolishly believing they don’t deserve it. It can be difficult to break free from these feelings, to re-wire oneself and take the leap of faith and vulnerability a healthy relationship requires. But Boyfriend Material is a beautiful rendering of not only how to do the work, but why it is so essential. We dismiss love and romance as frivolous, unserious topics, but Luc and Oliver are reminders of how hollow life would be without them. It’s also the rare book that doesn’t slap a happy ending on familial trauma; both heroes have complex, complicated relationships with their parents, but it doesn’t suggest that forgiveness and smoothing everything over is the only path to happiness. Instead, Hall acknowledges the vagaries and challenges of these things, the missteps we can make, and the lifelong struggle to protect oneself even when others mean well. All of this makes the book sound serious, but its real magic trick is that it’s not. It’s bursting with feeling, yes, and is a gut punch on more than one occasion. But it’s also deliriously witty, the banter between Luc and Oliver as intoxicating as a crisp, artfully mixed cocktail and as delicious as Oliver’s French toast. Hall is a dizzyingly talented writer, one likely to spur envy in anyone who’s ever picked up a pen. Boyfriend Material is the apotheosis of the rom-com, a story that balances personal insight, whip-smart dialogue, biting humor, and deep yearning. For those still looking for the right person to hold them close and promise everything will be alright, might I suggest tucking this book across your heart instead? It will offer comfort, guffaws, tears, and bliss between its pages. I love it, but that seems hardly adequate to describe how I feel about a novel that is a stunning rendering of joy incarnate.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A+

A Sweet Mess

By Jayci Lee

Review: Jayci Lee’s baker-meets-food-critic romantic comedy, which has recently been optioned by Daniel Dae Kim, lives up to its title for better or worse. It’s sweet, diverting, but also a little bit of a mess. Aubrey Choi is content running her successful bakery in a tiny Northern California town, but her business is threatened when jaded food critic Landon Kim tears apart her baking after an order mix-up. To make matters worse, Landon is her impulsive one-night stand. The two have an undeniable attraction. Not to mention, Landon feels guilty for passing judgment on a specialty cake not reflective of Aubrey’s skills. But he worries retracting his review could reflect poorly on them if it gets out that they slept together. Instead, he devises a plan for Aubrey to appear on his friend’s cooking show set in California wine country — a plot that backfires spectacularly when he and Aubrey end up sharing a villa. Lee is a gifted writer, particularly when writing about the all-consuming power of desire. Her descriptions are lush, and they’re employed most effectively when she lovingly details the meals and pastries Aubrey and Landon both make and eat. I found myself needing to put down the book often to go slake my all-consuming hunger induced by her tantalizing passages devoted to extraordinary meals. But the dialogue and plot can’t quite live up to these exquisite paragraphs, often taking predictable turns and zigging despite hopes it will zag. Her writing has a luminous quality when it comes to building a richly engrossing world and getting lost in the environment and food of her characters. Aubrey and Landon are gun-shy for similar reasons, deep familial traumas that have colored the way they go through life. But the further along they go, their separation feels forced and their reunion perhaps even more unlikely. Lee is a promising talent with a head for building beautiful spaces for her characters to inhabit, if only she give them as much depth as their surroundings. Much like its meals on the page, A Sweet Mess is a charming diversion, but it has a frustrating tendency to leave readers hungry for more.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B-

Not Like the Movies

By Kerry Winfrey

Review: Kerry Winfrey follows up last summer’s delicious Waiting for Tom Hanks with this deliriously lovely rom-com. Not Like the Movies follows Chloe, an optimist meandering through life as she struggles to cope with her father’s early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her best friend Annie (the heroine of Tom Hanks) sees undeniable rom-com vibes between Chloe and her boss, coffee shop owner Nick Velez. The attraction is there, even if Chloe wants to deny it, but when Annie debuts a movie inspired by their non-existent love story, it forces them to confront their complicated feelings. Chloe is a classic caretaker; having stepped in when her mother left when she was still a child, she takes on too much out of fear that placing expectations on others might lead to abandonment. It’s why she doesn’t believe in rom-coms and the romance Annie has envisioned for them. But Nick is quiet and self-assured, a gentle, sensitive soul under his scruffy, gruff exterior. Winfrey’s books burst with charm, the twee-ness of her pie-making heroine and warm, coffee shop vibes lending her writing the sparkling effect of twinkle lights. With Not Like the Movies, she taps even further into the current of melancholy that edges through her books like lemon through a pie. The bite and the sourness of the hand Chloe’s been dealt only making her journey all the sweeter and more satisfying. Not Like the Movies is about learning to let someone else in, about allowing oneself to believe that we deserve happy endings. While Waiting for Tom Hanks was a joy-soaked ode to rom-com glory, Not Like the Movies deals far more frankly with reality and the pain of dreams and love deferred. Chloe and Nick have to learn to trust their hearts and to accept help – because sometimes even when we try to deny it, we can get the rom-com we refuse to see staring us in the face. Hopeful, heartfelt, and poignantly tender, Not Like the Movies is the ideal title for late summer, a simultaneously warm and bittersweet package that feels just like this time of year.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥

Grade: A-

One to Watch

By Kate Stayman-London

Review: Every author hopes for a debut as divinely witty and engrossing as One to Watch, but few actually stick the landing. Kate Stayman-London delivers the fizziest summer read, guaranteed to have readers enamored within only a few brief pages. This rom-com follows Bea Schumacher, a plus-size fashion blogger, who finds herself the new lead on reality television show Main Squeeze (modeled closely after The Bachelor franchise) after writing a screed about the program’s lack of body diversity. It’s less traditional romance, more whirlwind tale of hard-won life lessons and smorgasbord of attractive dating options. For members of Bachelor nation, it’s bursting with consistently delightful Easter eggs that will tickle everyone from casual fans to obsessives. The book zips effortlessly from Bea’s own journey on the show to the culture surrounding the television franchise, including fictional excerpts from news stories, podcast banter, and fantasy league chat groups. At the heart of it all is Bea’s own battle with insecurities and self-love, the cruel comments of contestants and viewers niggling at her. Bea is neither a forced, overly cheery body positivity activist nor a self-pitying, self-loathing figure, as fiction that delves into weight so often tends to categorize its figures. Instead, she’s just a real woman, at turns a fierce boss bitch and at others her own worst enemy. Like any good season of The Bachelor, we fall head over heels for her instantly, but also find plenty of men to root for along the way and villains to detest. But even more potently, One to Watch offers up a journey that’s more heartfelt, more surprising, and more engaging than anything the ABC series has been able to deliver in recent years since aspiring Instagram influencers took over the cast. There’s plenty of requisite producer machinations and gasp-worthy twists, but there’s also something altogether more feminist and more interesting happening. With its investment in a compelling, non-cookie cutter heroine who goes through a profound journey that’s far more about doing the damn thing for herself and letting go of past wounds, it delivers on something The Bachelor always wishes they had: the most dramatic (and emotionally satisfying) season ever.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

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