Sauce Makers and Scoundrels: Four Hot Romance Novels

The start of the school year is always autumn’s great punctuation mark: I tend to think of it as the opening of a pair of brackets, but this year with all the confusion and panic it feels more like an interrobang. We’ll have to scrabble together what scraps of learning we can — just like the scientists, scholars, sauce makers and stroke survivors featured in this month’s romances.

First, I’m delighted to have the chance to directly and sincerely compare a romance novel to James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Olivia Dade’s SPOILER ALERT (Avon, 416 pp., paper, $15.99), like that impossible novel, takes an ancient poem as a jumping-off point for a bold and joyous experiment in form. In Dade’s story, a book series based on Virgil’s “Aeneid” has spawned a big-budget prestige television adaptation (aah, if only). Marcus is a gifted actor who plays Aeneas; he also plays dumb in interviews to hide his dyslexia. He’s asked a fan — a keen-eyed geologist named April — to dinner as a publicity stunt, after pictures of her character cosplay go viral and trolls viciously mock her body size. The pair have only just met in real life, but they’ve unknowingly been online best friends for years under their pseudonyms on a fanfic server.

Many of you are now rubbing your hands in unholy glee at the premise, and Dade delivers and then some. This book frolics through fields of fannish allusion and metatext: In addition to scenes from the show and “Aeneid” in-jokes, we have snippets of April’s incisive Lavinia takes, Marcus’s explorations of Aeneas’ inner turmoil, other people’s fics about Marcus and April’s date, and — best of all — excerpts from the gloriously bonkers rom-com scripts in which Marcus paid his dues as an up-and-coming actor. It takes a skillful writer to juggle so many elements, yet the emotional through-line shines clear and strong at every point.

In the Tang Dynasty setting of Jeannie Lin’s THE HIDDEN MOON (self-published, 328 pp., e-book, $4.99), scholarship is the basis for political advancement and intrigue. Our leads are barred from this path — Lady Bai Wei-Ling on account of her gender, and Gao on account of his class and illiteracy. Instead they use boldness, stubbornness and raw brilliance to untangle a mystery that threads its way through the imperial city to the highest levels of the court.

I had no idea we were getting another Lotus Palace novel to follow up Lin’s utterly perfect “The Jade Temptress,” and while this novel doesn’t quite reach the level of the previous one, it’s still a welcome combination of gripping mystery and cross-class romance. The impossibility of a match between Wei-Wei and Gao looms large for much of the book, so readers who like their romance high on the angst and hopeless pining will want to snap this up.

Speaking of historicals, and Asian leads, and favorite authors with surprise new books out after what feels like forever: Courtney Milan’s THE DUKE WHO DIDN’T (self-published, 241 pp., e-book, $4.99) is one of the best things to come out of the hellscape that is 2020. By turns consciously tender and fiercely witty, this is an unalloyed charmer about Chloe Fong, a stubborn Chinese-British sauce maker, and Jeremy Yu, the half-Chinese Duke of Lansing (a.k.a. “Posh Jim,” delightfully), who’s head over heels for her, but can’t seem to say it in a way that doesn’t make her think he’s joking. We’ve reached the point in the quarantine experience where casually sharing space and food with loved ones feels like unattainable hedonism; the palpable warmth of community and care in this story seems as luxurious and aspirational as any silk gown or starched cravat ever could.

That type of small-town found-family solace is also the bedrock of our fourth and final romance, TAKING STOCK (JMS Books, 280 pp., e-book, $3.99), a queer 1970s romance by A. L. Lester set in rural England. Fans of Cat Sebastian and K. J. Charles will find this book quieter but no less pleasing. Phil is a stockbroker in disgrace after his ex-boyfriend frames him for insider trading; when he retreats to a country cottage he is soon smitten by Laurie, a former runaway turned farmer just beginning to put his life together after a stroke. It’s rare to see chronic disability handled with such precision in romance — the author’s own experience certainly informs the text — and this book is open about how Laurie’s frustration makes him vulnerable as he relearns the limits of his body’s capabilities. But it is no savior narrative: Phil’s own past has enough pain in it that it feels like any rescuing is entirely mutual. It’s a delicate story, clearly told. It’s restrained but earnest; the focus on farm life (spring-fed ponds and sheep shearing!), and on rebuilding and rebirth, offers an earthy kind of hope, for whenever you feel like the world is falling to pieces around you.

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