Romance does not generally get credit for its full range of prose styles. For every floral classic like Laura Kinsale’s “For My Lady’s Heart,” you can find a clear-as-a-mountain-stream western like Beverly Jenkins’s “Topaz” or a sharp, sardonic contemporary like “Boyfriend Material,” by Alexis Hall. Despite its reputation for euphemism and overwrought metaphor, the genre is filled with writing that gets right to the point and stays out of the reader’s way.
Few writers do this as effectively as Jackie Lau, whose trope-forward contemporaries are as sugary and irresistible as the desserts her characters create. She hooked me with the joyous “Grumpy Fake Boyfriend,” and I’ve been a fan ever since. Her sentences seem transparent, but the more you read, the more they filter the light until you glimpse something delicately shaded and beautiful.
DONUT FALL IN LOVE (Berkley, 368 pp., paper, $16) is classic Lau, a gently funny Toronto-set romance about a movie star with famous abs and the doughnut shop owner giving him lessons before his appearance on the show “Baking Fail.” This is the trope-y glaze over a base of grief and vulnerability: Ryan and Lindsay, who have both lost parents relatively young, are struggling with the ways loss has etched their emotional landscapes.
The book is a perfect example of how realistic personal stakes — say, your disappointed dad starting a dry but hilarious Twitter account to roast you in public — can feel world-shiftingly large in the right hands.
There are roughly two kinds of anthologies — one, a collection of stories as different as possible, and two, a matched set that aims for cohesion and unity. Contrasting or complementary flavors, you might say. AMOR ACTUALLY (Adriana Herrera, Kindle, $4.99) is definitely the latter, a multiauthor Latinx holiday story cycle riffing on the various plotlines of “Love Actually.” Holiday romances are one of the whitest subgenres around, so an anthology that organically celebrates the rich traditions of people of color stands out as a welcome expansion.
The seven authors might be aiming for matching registers of theme and mood — new beginnings, holiday joy and following your desires loom large throughout — but the breadth of ages and sexualities and pairings shows this volume has its arms thrown wide open in welcome. It’s almost too cozy and delectable for words, which is to say it’s perfect mood reading for a stressful holiday season. I recommend parceling chapters out between baking, cleaning, decorating and awkward time with relatives.
Particular standouts for me are Mia Sosa’s grumpy head chef turned sexy Santa, Diana Muñoz Stewart’s witty, wary, divorced librarian heroine and Zoey Castile’s glorious bilingual gem, “Romance in Spanglish.”
The stories felt a little light to me at first, but the more I read, the more I liked them. As with Jackie Lau’s book — as with any ritual or tradition, from holiday dinners to the words I love you — accumulation is a sort of alchemy, as individual moments pile up to create something more meaningful than any individual part. Seeing all the couples come together for Nochebuena at the end was cathartic in a way few epilogues can achieve.
For more literal alchemy, this year has also seen a big surge in supernatural and magical books, expanding the offerings in paranormal romance. Instead of alpha vampires or brooding werewolf packs, though, we’re seeing a rise in covens and spellbooks and sorcerers. This includes Austenesque fantasies like Stephanie Burgis’s “Scales and Sensibility,” where tiny dragons are a debutante’s newest accessory, and a slew of small towns full of secret spellcasting families.
Lana Harper’s PAYBACK’S A WITCH (Berkley, 352 pp., paper, $16) is the sexy Sapphic modern Gothic I didn’t know I needed. It’s a return-to-your-hometown story with a witchy twist, starring a bisexual heroine, Emmy, who’s done her level best to leave her ex and her Midwestern magical heritage behind. But family obligations have called her back to be the arbiter for this year’s all-important magic competition, where her best friend, Linden, and a dangerously sexy ghost-befriending witch named Talia have also been hurt by Emmy’s ex — and want to make him suffer for it.
What makes this a Gothic as well as a paranormal is its sense of gorgeous unreality. Gothics have something luxurious or decadent about them. And “Payback’s a Witch” is filled with sublime turns of phrase: the way the moon shines down “like a magician’s trick,” or a new crush offering “forbidden pleasure, the kind that kept crossroads demons in the business of buying souls.” Yet the book is also fresh, sharp and often frankly hilarious. I stayed up with this one past midnight on a storm-tossed night, drunk on the words and the unalloyed joy at the ending.
In short, a perfect winter read, highly recommended for one of the longest nights of the year.
Olivia Waite is the Book Review’s romance fiction columnist. She writes queer historical romance, fantasy and critical essays on the genre’s history and future.