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Hot Stuff: May romances tackle issues with ferocity and love

Maureen Lee Lenker

Over the last three months, it seems that every time I write one of these columns, the world is a bleaker place than before. Romance at its best should be a place to escape the world when all of this gets to be too much. But as a reflection of our culture, and a genre where we try to celebrate the best of ourselves through the power of love, it should also be a space to examine and combat the world's most pressing concerns unsparingly. Publishing is too often a microcosm for the inequity and racism that permeates our society, but romance should be a place to proclaim that everyone deserves a happy ending. This month we review five novels that we hope offer a mix of rom-com escapism and essential conversation.

Blue Box Press

Queen Move

By Kennedy Ryan

Review: Kennedy Ryan spins off her Kingmaker duology with this soul-searing explanation of a rare, bone-deep kind of love. Kimba Allen is a boss with a capital “B,” every inch the queen of the title. A political campaign manager dedicated to putting those committed to lasting change in office, she’s coming off running a successful presidential campaign when she’s hit with a double whammy – a perimenopause diagnosis and the return of her childhood best friend, Ezra Stern, after decades apart. Ezra and Kimba were torn apart by shadowy family secrets, but when they meet again, their attraction is combustible. Kennedy Ryan is one of the most profoundly, thoughtful, powerful writers out there today, and Queen Move is no exception. While Kimba and Ezra’s lifelong connection takes center stage, they wrestle with dissolving relationships, as well as their personal dedication to their careers grounded in social justice and equity. Kimba knows who she is and is unapologetically herself, while Ezra has had to grow into his identity as a biracial man. There is no issue Ryan’s not willing to tackle: exposing systemic racism and injustice, unpacking questions of identity, probing questions of womanhood, and diving into trauma with searing bravery and precision. She knows implicitly that the personal is political and brings that to breathless life. Her books are a textbook for how it is not only possible, but essential to celebrate joy, love, and desire while acknowledging the grief and anger that arise from the emotional toll of systematic oppression. Queen Move is a tale of a love forged in fire, two souls made from the same metal coming together at last. Kimba and Ezra’s journeys are perhaps quieter and more grounded in affluence than some of her previous work, with Kimba’s political success and Ezra’s dedication to education offering the backdrop for their explosive love story. But it’s still hyper-present, built into fundamental questions of career, ambition, love, and success. Kimba and Ezra get swept away by their romance, and I dare readers not to feel equally carried away, but their relationship is always grounded in the challenges of their lives. Kimba must wrestle with her shortened timeline for choosing motherhood, while Ezra has to face the dissolution of a long-term relationship. Queen Move is an epic tale of soulmates, two humans who want to possess each other body and soul. Ryan wields the word “mine” as if the entire dictionary and breadth of human experience were knit up in that one word. It’s because she understands the power of a single word, while still giving you a sea of poetic lyricism to swim in. Ezra and Kimba are on a crackling collision course, destined for each other since their shared day of birth. Ryan uses the metaphor of chess and the queen's all-powerful position on the board to express Kimba's hold on Ezra's heart and general bad-assery, but it's Queen Move that is the real checkmate here, designed to tear down readers' defenses until we succumb to every moment of the story's agony and ecstasy.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

Penguin

Beach Read

By Emily Henry

Review: From time to time, there are novels that have sentences so beautiful, so exquisitely constructed, that I have to stop reading to luxuriate in them. Beach Read is one such book, a toweringly brilliant dissection of literary criticism and a tale of barely repressed longing and loneliness. Augustus Everett writes award-winning literary fiction, while January Andrews pens best-selling romance. When the polar opposites (and former college rivals) discover they’re living in neighboring beach houses, they make a bet to shake them from their mutual writer’s block: Gus will write a romance novel, while January has to take a stab at the next Great American Novel. As part of their bet, they’ll stage elaborate field trips, interviewing former cult members and seeing rom-coms at the drive-in. January describes her work as a cross between women’s fiction and romance (albeit calling out the inherent ridiculousness of women’s fiction as a label), and it’s a fair assessment of Beach Read itself. We stay squarely in January's point of view as she wrestles with grief over the death of her father and her subsequent discovery of his marital infidelity. January is struggling to write a happily-ever-after because she’s not entirely sure she even believes in them anymore, which is why she’s shaken to her core to find herself falling for Gus. Henry deliciously skewers the pretentiousness of those who choose to designate romance (and other popular fiction) to a lesser category, one slapped with the “beach read” label. She finds beauty and value in all forms of writing, plumbing storytelling as the purest path to understanding. While Henry understands that happiness is fragile and fleeting, he also recognizes that only makes it all the more worth seizing upon. A happily-ever-after isn’t formulaic or idealistic so much as it is choosing joy as it comes. Beach Read is profoundly smart, slyly couching its commentary on literary valuation in a love story of its own, one that boldly grapples with infidelity, divorce, disappointment, loss, and hope. That Henry can manage to both pack a fierce emotional wallop and spear literary posturing in one go is a testament to her immense skill. She has joked that in many ways the book is about writer’s block, but that’s an apt metaphor for anyone who’s ever felt stuck. Beach Read is a wholly original tribute to the hard work it takes to shake off that paralysis and embrace life with whatever you’ve got, whether you’re able to embrace hope unabashedly or cling to it by your fingernails. There’s no judgment, only a breathless celebration of the astonishing feeling of being overwhelmed by another human being’s existence. Beach Read sparkles like the afternoon sun on the water on a picture-perfect beach day, but it’s a book that will linger long after the sun has set and the sand has been dusted off your toes.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

Penguin

Something to Talk About

By Meryl Wilsner

Review: Meryl Wilsner’s tender romance between a Hollywood showrunner and her loyal assistant is the stuff of slow-burn perfection. When former child star turned Hollywood powerhouse Jo Jones takes her assistant, Emma, with her to the SAG Awards, a picture of them laughing on the red carpet sets the rumor mill churning. The gossip starts to impact all aspects of their lives, but with the two increasingly spending time together, might the rumor not be that far off base? Wilsner delivers two potent, fully crafted women: one a cautious, restrained star who’s learned to keep her emotions close to the vest after facing Hollywood racism and censure, the other an optimistic dreamer who’s never quite believed she's good enough to pursue her dreams. Wilsner also smartly tackles the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment, particularly in the context of a workplace romance between a superior and her employee. By not only addressing the elephant in the room but putting it front and center, Wilsner expertly subverts any concerns about uneven power dynamics. They show how crucial nuance, sensitivity, and consideration are for workplace romance, infusing Emma and Jo’s love with an extra sense of fragility. There’s a delicacy and tentativeness to their feelings, one that makes its payoff all the more tender and hard-won. Jo and Emma’s love story feels extraordinary because the care that Wilsner gives their characters (and that they share for each other) feels both immense and mundane. Something to Talk About is a Hollywood love story, but it excels in its quietness, the reassuring touch of a hand, or the ability to sit with another person in stillness, more monumental than any red carpet or flashing lights. It’s something to talk about indeed.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥

Grade: A

Penguin


Real Men Knit

By Kwana Jackson

Review: Meet the Strong brothers, a group of hunky men who share an adoptive mother, Mama Joy. When Mama Joy suddenly passes away, leaving her beloved neighborhood knit shop (Strong Knits, naturally) in their hands, the brothers have to decide what to do with this money-losing legacy. Part-time employee Kerry Fuller has always found the shop an oasis, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s spent years crushing on Jesse Strong despite his reputation as a player. As the two bond and try to save the store, they might find it impossible to deny their feelings for each other — but Jesse will have to prove he’s the type of man who deserves Kerry’s love. Jackson has crafted a warm hug of a novel. The sense of community bursts off of the page, welcoming readers into a neighborhood that looks out for their own. Strong Knits is more than a craft store; it’s a community gathering place that offers lonely, overlooked kids a home base. Mama Joy was its rock, as reflected in her decision to adopt four boys of disparate backgrounds. But so much of Jackson’s tale is about creating safe, welcoming spaces, whether that be in a physical store or the arms of the one you love. Though Mama Joy is no longer with the characters, her ethos pervades the novel, lending it a sense of home. So many of us, myself included, learn to knit from trusted matriarchs. Reading Real Men Knit brought me back to lazy afternoons in my Nana’s RV, learning the art of the knit and purl, wondering if I would ever be able to make beautiful sweaters like hers (spoiler: I cannot). There’s an affection and a grief in those memories now that she’s gone, and Jackson nails that peculiar blend of memory and loss. I found myself wishing Strong Knits was real, and that she was still here to visit with me. Real Men Knit is steeped in grief, but there’s a buoyant hopefulness to it — the resilience of love and legacy essential to Kerry and Jesse’s romance. Their love is transformative, wrought by a desire to honor Mama Joy’s legacy of generosity and care, which is so all-consuming it can almost overshadow the romance. Still, Jackson has created such an inviting, familiar world that the book will easily stitch its way into your heart.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B+

Sourcebooks

The Tourist Attraction

By Sarah Morgenthaler

Review: What do you get when you combine a gloriously grumpy hero, the wilds of Alaska, and a heroine looking to make good on the trip of a lifetime? Sarah Morgenthaler’s debut novel, The Tourist Attraction. Set in the fictional town of Moose Springs, this rom-com follows Zoey Caldwell, a vacationer on her bucket-list two-week trip to Alaska. On her first night in town, she meets diner owner Graham Barnett, a man so curmudgeonly he could give New Girl’s Nick Miller a run for his money. Graham hates tourists, and strictly avoids entanglements with them as a rule. But after Zoey accidentally gets drunk in his restaurant, the two find themselves inexorably drawn to each other. Morgenthaler hits all the beats of a classic rom-com with aplomb, plopping her characters into high jinks involving chainsaws, whale watching, and an amorous moose. While the story rests firmly on the tension and attraction between Zoey and Graham, it’s buoyed by Morgenthaler’s expert sense of setting. In some ways, the novel hits its beats a little too firmly, playing out the familiar opposites-attract outsider-and-local love story. But the Alaskan setting sets it apart, rooting Zoey and Graham’s lives in a vivid, vibrant place that fuels their growing connection. Morgenthaler understands that finding a place that feels like home is as much about the people as the surroundings, while still never giving the sense of place short shrift. Her banter sings, particularly in the hands of a lovable grouch like Graham. And it all comes to a head with a grand gesture that combines the heady romanticism of such a choice with its real-world implications, infusing the moment with pathos and humor. The Tourist Attraction is a rom and a com in equal measure, perfect for those who need some amoosement with a healthy helping of romance.

Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥

Grade: B+

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