Romance is the perfect pick-me-up--there’s realistic conflict, but you can always count on the HEA (happily ever after). There’s so much variety out there, too, you could read a new romance every day and barely scratch the surface.

Turn Up the Heat is a recurring feature in which I round up some of the best romances I’ve read lately. This time I’ve got an athletic trainer who falls for a Hollywood actor, urban Native Americans who are passionate about social justice, a second chance romance between a rapper and his manager, a hero who works in a chocolate shop, and two historical romances featuring marginalized characters. Let’s get to it!

Acting on Impulse by Mia Sosa

A fun interracial romance with Hollywood vibes. Tori is a no-nonsense personal trainer who meets a cute guy on a plane to Aruba. She’s on vacation to forget her ex and has no intention of pursuing anything with Carter, but he’s driving hard to the hoop and she finds she has trouble resisting him. What she doesn’t realize is he’s a famous Hollywood actor, rendered unrecognizable due to a physical transformation he undertook for a role. When the truth comes out, Tori doesn’t want anything to do with him, but it turns out Carter is in need of a personal trainer to build his muscles back up—and Tori is the only person he wants for the job.

Heartbeat Braves by Pamela Sanderson

I’ve been looking for romance by and about Native Americans for a while now, and I was SO TICKLED to find Heartbeat Braves thanks to the Book Riot romance newsletter. It’s set at an urban Indian center and the heroine, Rayanne, has a passion for elder care and helping indigenous people who live in her city. Unfortunately, the center is chronically underfunded and struggling to get the momentum to complete projects. When a prominent board member hires his nephew Henry to fill a position Rayanne thought would be hers, Rayanne has to bite her tongue, swallow her pride, and help the clueless newbie in order to keep the center up and going. The thing is, Henry’s not a bad guy, and Rayanne’s enthusiasm for the work is contagious. Sparks will fly and people who need help will be served! Social justice + new love = an unstoppable combo.

Flow and Grip by Kennedy Ryan

These two books are best read together, as Grip is a second chance romance and Flow is a prequel that tells the story of how the characters first met and fell in love before circumstances drove them apart. Grip (real name Marlon) is Bristol’s brother’s best friend, and when they first meet they’re young and trying to figure out their lives. Grip dates a lot of women but famously never settles down, and that reputation is what ultimately keeps the two apart despite an amazing few days they share when Bristol comes for a visit. It’s the kind of instant connection you don’t find very often, and neither of them can stop thinking about it even years later, once Grip is a successful recording artist and Bristol is his manager. Beyond the angsty love story, you’ll also get a thoughtful and nuanced discussion of the tensions between police and people of color (which is one of the main reasons I love romance—there’s so much more going on than you might expect).

Vanilla Clouds by Roe Horvat

A romance in which one of the heroes works in a Swedish chocolate shop! Can you even?! I had a smile on my face from the first page to the last. Michal doesn’t have much going on in the romance department, but he does have an online friend named Magnus who lives in Germany. Magnus wants to meet, but Michal puts him off--what if their online chemistry doesn’t hold up in real life? When a handsome stranger comes into the shop and asks him out, Michal decides to take a chance--but even as he’s falling for someone new, he can’t stop thinking about Magnus.

An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole

Don’t tell me romance isn’t real literature! This is the best of what historical fiction can be. An Unconditional Freedom is the third and final book in the Loyal League series, which follows members of a secret society fighting against slavery during the Civil War. In this book, Daniel Cumberland was born free but captured and sold into slavery. He’s now free again and working for the Loyal League, but his experiences have left scars both visible and invisible. He’s assigned to work a case with a new agent, Janeta Sanchez, a Cuban immigrant who is secretly a spy for the Confederacy. This is very much an against-all-odds romance, considering the tumultuous time in history, the danger of the characters’ jobs, their different cultures and experiences, and the fact that they start out on different sides of the war. Only a talent like Alyssa Cole’s could pull these two together.

Behind These Doors by Jude Lucens

A polyamorous historical set in early 1900s London, with more complicated upper-class/lower-class drama than you can shake a stick at. Aubrey is already in a fulfilling but necessarily secret relationship with his old school friend and his wife, but when he meets Lucien, a journalist, he’s immediately intrigued. It takes a lot to negotiate how the various relationships will work, especially because the society of the time so strictly dictates what is and is not acceptable, but Aubrey is a big-hearted, sweet, and kind person, and he’s willing to listen when Lucien confronts him about the ways privilege has made him blind.

AuthorTaryn Pierson

I like reading in all formats--audio books in my ears, ebooks on my Kindle, paperbacks and hardcovers from my bookshelf or from the library, it’s all good for me. All reading is good reading!

This time I have for you some of the great books I’ve read recently in hardcover. I’ve got queer historical crime fiction about a smuggling ring, a chef’s journey around the country in search of good home cooking, hot off the press literary fiction about family and incarceration, and a dual timeline story of families struggling to make a responsible living in a world that denies obvious truths.

The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco

And the award for most apt title goes to…! This book is seriously gritty, dark, bloody, at times disturbing, and after listing those descriptors I’m not sure I can articulate why I liked it so much. Maybe because, like its main character, it doesn’t apologize for how nasty it is. Alma Rosales, sometimes known as Jack Camp, is a former Pinkerton agent who is now working her way up the ladder in a smuggling ring headed by her beautiful onetime lover, Delphine. When she’s summoned from San Francisco to Port Townsend to infiltrate Delphine’s crew, sniffing out competitors on the outside and moles on the inside, Alma is sucked into a game so complex, I wasn’t sure until the very last page who was pulling the strings. And what a last page it is! I have a famously bad memory and most endings don’t stick with me, but I bet if you ask me a year from now how this book ended, I’ll be able to tell you. It’s one of those endings that somehow has both the feeling of total inevitability and total surprise—I had no idea which way it was going to go, but I felt like every word had led up to those few breathless seconds. The action takes place in 1887, and rarely has a book brought an era to such visceral life. You will be able to smell the sweat in the characters’ armpits. Whether that’s something you want in your reading or not, I’ll leave up to you. Would make a hell of a TV series.

Buttermilk Graffiti by Edward Lee

My husband and I discovered after bingeing all available seasons of The Great British Bakeoff that we really enjoy food-related television, and our fascination led us to Netflix shows like Cooked, Ugly Delicious, and Salt Fat Acid Heat. Buttermilk Graffiti is like those shows, but in book form. Chef Edward Lee traveled around America, eating in local restaurants and worming his way into as many kitchens as he could, because he wanted to learn about the kinds of cooking being done in different regions by different cultures. It didn’t always go well—he often followed whims rather than plans, tried to infiltrate some very insular communities, and his main MO was to walk up to strangers and start asking questions. He at one point purchased a raw chicken sort of against his will and then didn’t have a way to refrigerate it, so he tried to give it to his server at a chicken restaurant—an impulse born of good intentions, but clearly not one bound to be received well. Despite these and other false starts, Lee does some meaningful reflecting on ideas like authenticity, cultural gatekeeping, and appropriation, and it’s fun to go along for the ride with him (especially since you’re not actually there suffering the awkwardness in person).

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

I pre-ordered this book based on two factors: the comparisons to The Mothers and An American Marriage, and that cover. It was a risk worth taking because DANG is this book good, in a break your heart kind of way. Althea and her husband Proctor are successful business owners and pillars of the community until they’re arrested for fraud. Their public downfall forces Althea’s extended family together—and the proximity pushes long-simmering tensions into a boil. All of Althea’s siblings have demons they haven’t fully dealt with, and it becomes clear that in order to go on, they’re going to need to reckon with them—even if some of those demons turn out to be each other. This is a study on generational pain, how bad habits and character flaws and harmful choices get repeated from parent to child, from sibling to sibling, over and over again. If you’re into complicated family dynamics, this is your book of 2019.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is pretty much an automatic buy for me. I’ve loved her work since The Poisonwood Bible was an Oprah’s Book Club pick. She’s such a force for environmental ethics and social justice, I was eager to see what she’d do with this new novel set partly during the 2016 election. There are two timelines, each taking place at the same address in Vineland, New Jersey but over 100 years apart. In the modern timeline, baby boomers Willa and her husband Iano are in dire financial straits despite having worked steadily for years. Now they’re saddled with an infant grandson and an ailing family patriarch, their house is literally falling down around their ears, and they don’t have the funds for repairs. Over a century earlier, Thatcher Greenwood is a high school science teacher who’s being bullied out of teaching Darwinism by a closed-minded principal and a narcissistic town father. The parallels that develop between the two stories are both interesting and comforting--when conditions are scary politically, it can feel apocalyptic, but these two stories told together show that at least in some ways, we’ve been here before.

AuthorTaryn Pierson