“Bringing Down the Duke” by Evie Dunmore and “Would Like To Meet” by Rachel Winters

Bringing Down the DukeI’m always up for a historical novel featuring strong female characters—there were a lot of amazing women who fought hard against extraordinary odds to bring us the rights we enjoy today. The blurb on the front cover of Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke calls it a “celebration of the power of love and the passionate fight for women’s rights.” Sounds promising!

The year is 1879. Annabelle Archer is in her midtwenties, stuck working as a maid for her vicar cousin, when she learns that Oxford University has opened a women’s college. Attending Oxford seems like an impossible dream for an impoverished young woman, but a surprising benefactor appears: the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which will pay Annabelle’s way as long as she promises to work for the cause.

Lady Lucie Tedbury and her fellow suffragists are lobbying Parliament to overturn the Married Women’s Property Act, which forced female property owners to surrender everything to their husbands when they wed. Instructed to identify “men of influence,” Annabelle boldly hands a pamphlet to the cold, fearsome Duke of Montgomery, one of the most powerful men in England. Lucie admires Annabelle’s bravery but informs her that the Duke is a lost cause.

Naturally, Annabelle and the Duke wind up encountering each other again. Sparks fly! But the only possible relationship she could have with a man of such high status is that of his secret mistress, which is hardly an acceptable fate for an ambitious young woman. Annabelle has also developed close friendships with several of her fellow suffragists, and doesn’t want to risk losing them.

Bringing Down the Duke does contain quite a few romance-novel tropes, but it also passes the Bechdel test, and the relationships between the female characters are an integral part of the book. I could probably have done with 10% more of the suffragist plot and 10% less romantic angst, but it’s basically a quick and pleasant read.

Would Like To MeetMeanwhile, in present-day England, Evie Summers is working as an assistant to the owner of an agency representing film and TV writers. Her boss basically expects her to be on call constantly, taking advantage of the fact that Evie is hoping to be promoted to agent someday. However, the agency is currently in trouble, because its biggest client, young Oscar-winning screenwriting phenom Ezra Chester, has writers’ block. Ezra signed a contract to pen a rom-com for a film company, but he’s missed deadline after deadline.

When her boss informs her that unless Ezra can deliver his script, the agency will go under, Evie decides to help. She’ll arrange a series of meet-cutes for herself, and write them up for Ezra in an attempt to provide inspiration and prove that romantic comedies aren’t as contrived and unrealistic as he believes they are.

Of course, the rom-com meet-cutes that Evie is attempting to recreate are exceedingly contrived and unrealistic. And it seems deeply unlikely that even a screenwriter with an Academy Award to his credit would be rolling in dough and dating a famous actress (I was reminded of the ancient joke about the Hollywood starlet who was so brainless that she slept with the screenwriter). This is a rather silly book that requires you to just go with it (hey, that was a rom-com!); it reminded me a lot of Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic books in that regard. Hideously embarrassing things are constantly happening to the heroine as she stumbles toward her inevitable happy ending, so be forewarned if you’re allergic to cringe comedy.

“Well Met” by Jen DeLuca and “The Flatshare” by Beth O’Leary

Well MetSince the lead characters in Well Met are 25 and 27 years of age, I’m probably a little too old to be in the book’s target audience. But I still found it a delightful novel, and one with some significant wisdom that readers in the protagonists’ age range could benefit from.

Emily dropped out of college in order to work as a bartender and help put her fiancé through law school, but after he graduated and got a job with a high-powered firm, he broke up with her. When Emily’s older sister April, a single mom, is seriously injured in a car accident, she leaves Boston and heads to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, in order to help out.

Emily and April have never been particularly close due to their 12-year age difference. But moving in with April and her teenage daughter Caitlin at least gives Emily a place to live and something to do while she recovers from her broken heart. Emily quickly learns that every summer, Willow Creek hosts a wildly popular Renaissance Faire—and Caitlin is dying to participate in the cast. Since she’s too young to do so without an adult guardian nearby, Emily agrees to serve as a tavern wench, figuring her bartending experience will come in handy.

The festival is run by a local English teacher named Simon, who immediately strikes Emily as an uptight killjoy. However, at the fair, Simon dons the costume and persona of a charismatic pirate named Captain Ian Blackthorne. The pirate strikes up a flirtation with the wench, and Emily finds herself attracted to him… at least when he’s in character. Once he’s back in civilian clothes, the two of them always seem to be at odds.

Both Simon and Emily have a lot of personal baggage, and need to learn some serious life lessons before they can be together. Simon is mired in the past, due to family tragedy, while Emily is still bruised and deeply insecure because of her break-up. The happy ending in Well Met is truly well-earned, which makes it all the sweeter.

The FlatshareBeth O’Leary’s The Flatshare also has some insights to impart, wrapped in a high-concept romcom about two Londoners who wind up living in the same apartment—even sleeping in the same bed—without ever meeting. Tiffy desperately needs a cheap place to live after breaking up with her boyfriend; Leon is in dire need of cash to pay for a solicitor willing to take his incarcerated brother’s case. Since Leon works nights as a nurse, he figures he can rent his flat to someone with a 9-to-5 job, and their paths will never cross. (He plans to spend the weekends at his girlfriend Kay’s place.)

Kay interviews Tiffy and hands over the key to Leon’s flat (“Her expression could not be more obvious: It says, I was worried you might be hot and try to steal my boyfriend from me while you make yourself at home in his bed, but now I’ve seen you and he’d never be attracted to you, so yes! Come in!“). Weeks pass, then months, and the two roommates never bump into each other, but they do communicate prolifically via Post-It notes. Leon is so preoccupied with his brother’s legal issues—he’s in jail for armed robbery, but swears he’s innocent—that it begins to affect his relationship with Kay. Meanwhile, Tiffy’s ex-boyfriend begins to display an unnerving knack for popping up wherever she happens to be. It seems like he’s trying to win her back, but his reappearances cause Tiffy to develop PTSD-like symptoms as she gradually comes to realize that her ex was emotionally abusive.

Like Well Met, this is a novel that’s fun but not frivolous. Both O’Leary and DeLuca bring welcome fresh voices to the modern romantic comedy genre.

“Royal Holiday” by Jasmine Guillory

Royal HolidayJust a few months after her appearance in The Wedding Party, fashion stylist Maddie Forest is back in Royal Holiday, which sends her to England to pick out clothes for a young duchess (unnamed in the book, but obviously inspired by Meghan Markle). However, Maddie and the duchess play small supporting roles in Royal Holiday, which focuses on Maddie’s mom, Vivian Forest.

Vivian is an Oakland social worker who hasn’t taken a vacation in years when her daughter persuades her to come along on her Christmastime work trip. (The duchess’ regular stylist is out of commission due to a difficult pregnancy, so Maddie will be filling in.) It may be her last chance to relax before starting a new job—Vivian’s boss is retiring, and she’s in line to become director of her department once he departs.

Vivian, who has been divorced for decades, was not expecting to find romance on her trip, but then she meets Malcolm, the Queen’s private secretary. Smitten with the American visitor, Malcolm offers to show her around the property. Their flirtation develops into a friendship, and when it’s time for Maddie to go home, Malcolm invites Vivian to stay on and spend a few extra days with him. Surely there’s no chance that this fling could turn into something more, considering that the two of them live thousands of miles apart?

After reading Guillory’s trilogy of novels about a group of friends who are mostly in their early 30s, it was refreshing to encounter a more seasoned pair. Their priorities are different, and they’re both in stable, successful careers. Certainly The Wedding Party was more of an emotional roller-coaster ride, while Royal Holiday is basically a pleasant opportunity to spend time with some very likable characters in splendid surroundings, from Sandringham House to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s jewelry collection.

[Incidentally, I went to Guillory’s launch event at a bookstore in Oakland, and she was asked who she’d like to play Malcolm in a hypothetical Royal Holiday film. Idris Elba’s name came up, but Guillory felt it might not be believable for the “sexiest man alive” to portray a character who has been unattached for several years. Of course, readers may “cast” the characters in any way they please, and I think Elba and Viola Davis would make a perfect Malcolm and Vivian.]

“The Wedding Party” by Jasmine Guillory

The Wedding PartyMaddie Forest and Theo Stephens have something in common: they are both best friends with the same person, Alexa Monroe. With Alexa’s wedding on the horizon, she has naturally asked both of them to be in her wedding party, which means they’ll be seeing a lot of each other. There’s a big problem, though. Maddie and Theo have never gotten along.

Maddie is a stylist who spends her days helping her clients find fashionable outfits; Theo thinks she’s a superficial nitwit who only cares about clothes and celebrities. Theo works for the mayor of Berkeley; Maddie thinks he’s a condescending know-it-all. Then one night after Alexa drags her to Theo’s birthday party, he and Maddie wind up having what both of them firmly insist is a one-night stand.

“Relax,” Theo tells her the morning after. “This will never happen again, and Alexa will never find out.”

However, a few weeks later, it does happen again… and while their sexual connection is obvious, they have nothing else in common, so they’re just having some fun, right? In any case, whatever they’re doing can’t last, so there’s no point in telling Alexa. Or anyone else, for that matter. The two start sneaking around with each other, until something happens that forces them to confront the fact that they might actually have developed feelings for each other.

This is the third book in Guillory’s series (Alexa and her fiancé Drew’s story was told in the author’s first novel, The Wedding Date), and while the enemies-to-lovers trope is well-worn, she handles it with humor and heart. She draws them both sympathetically, giving the reader insight into what makes them tick. Theo’s smartypants behavior masks his deep-down insecurity. And Maddie’s hard outer shell hides a soft, vulnerable center. These opposites actually have a lot in common, and while a happily-ever-after is guaranteed—this is a romance novel, after all—Guillory makes getting to that point a lot of fun.

“The Unhoneymooners” by Christina Lauren and “The Austen Playbook” by Lucy Parker

The UnhoneymoonersDoes anybody ever actually fall in love with their worst enemy? The “enemies to lovers” is a ridiculously common trope in romance novels, but when I think of my own personal nemeses, the idea of cuddling up to them is utterly repulsive. But sure, let’s suspend disbelief. Christina Lauren’s The Unhoneymooners requires a lot of that anyway, since the plot relies on a couple of whopping coincidences.

Olive and Ami Torres are identical twins, but while Ami seems to enjoy a never-ending run of good luck, nothing ever seems to go Olive’s way. However, when Ami’s picture-perfect wedding ends in chaos—the seafood buffet makes all the guests, save the two who didn’t partake, violently ill—she demands Olive go on the all-expenses-paid honeymoon to Maui (a sweepstakes prize that can’t be rescheduled) in her stead. The only other person who didn’t get sick, besides the allergic-to-seafood Olive, is Ethan Thomas, the brother of the groom. (He’s always felt buffets were unsanitary, so he’d opted for the chicken plate.)

Olive and Ethan’s relationship got off on the wrong foot when they first met, though of course both of them are ridiculously attractive, so it seems inevitable that putting them in close proximity on a romantic 10-day trip to Hawaii will cause sparks to fly. However, there are a couple of complications. First, Olive’s new boss and his wife just happen to be staying at the same resort (she’s starting a new job right after the trip), so immediately Olive and Ethan have to pretend they’re actually a couple. And then it turns out Ethan’s ex-girlfriend is also there, along with her new boyfriend. (Shades of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives”!)

I read most of The Unhoneymooners in the wee hours of the morning during a bout of jet lag, and it was really the ideal light, uncomplicated read for that particular circumstance. It’s a fun book if you can roll your eyes and get past the big coincidences.

The Austen PlaybookWhen I saw that Lucy Parker’s latest “London Celebrities” novel, The Austen Playbook, featured a theater critic and an actress as its protagonists, I thought I was in for another “enemies falling in love” storyline, but fortunately, that’s not really the case here. Granted, James “Griff” Ford-Griffin has penned some caustic critiques of Freddy Carlton, but he’s basically a nice guy and romance blooms fairly early on in the book. No, this book is all about the plot, and it’s a doozy. Freddy is starring in a “choose-your-own-adventure” murder-mystery-themed adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that is set to air in the U.K., with TV viewers voting via app how they want the story to proceed. It’s being staged in a theater on the Surrey estate belonging to Griff’s family, which it turns out has some rather interesting historic ties to Freddy’s family, and… well, Griff and Freddy soon learn that both of their families are harboring all sorts of deep, dark, long-buried secrets.

I found myself wishing that The Austen Playbook was a crime novel instead of a romance, because there were times that it would have been very plausible for one of the supporting characters to be knocked off. But the only murder is one that happens in the TV-show-within-the-book. Still, I love novels where scandalous historical goings-on affect the present day, and of course the theatrical backdrop of this series is enormously appealing to me as well. It was also nice to see Leo Magasiva, the hedgehog-owning protagonist of last year’s Making Up, in a cameo appearance.

“The Bride Test” by Helen Hoang

The Bride TestTrấn Ngọc Mỹ works as a maid at a fancy hotel in Hồ Chí Minh City, Việt Nam, supporting her multigenerational family: her mother, grandmother and young daughter. Only 23, Mỹ got pregnant at a young age, and is raising her child as a single parent; Mỹ herself is the product of a brief fling between her mom and an American businessman, who had already left the country before her mother realized she was pregnant.

One day, a chance encounter with a prosperous-looking Vietnamese-American woman leads to a potentially life-changing offer. Cô Nga invites Mỹ to come to California for the summer to meet her youngest son, Khai, a shy accountant who is 26 and has never had a girlfriend. With three big family weddings about to take place, Cô Nga wants to make sure Khải attends the events with a date on his arm—and if it ultimately leads to his own marriage, so much the better: “I could give you a summer in America to see if you two fit. If you don’t, no problem, you go home.”

Mỹ is suspicious, and reluctant to leave her daughter, but hopes that a summer in America may provide her with a chance to find her long-lost father. She agrees to go, changing her name to the more Western-sounding Esme, after the character of Esmerelda in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (her daughter’s choice). However, Khai is not happy to have a strange woman (even a beautiful one) showing up on his doorstep. He enjoys his highly-regimented life, and Esme seems intent on disrupting it in both large and small ways, from rearranging his bathroom drawers to making noodle soup for breakfast and attempting to tidy up his overgrown yard with the help of a meat cleaver.

Khai, who is autistic, is convinced he can’t fall in love and that his heart is made of stone. Esme, however, falls for Khai and accepts him for who he is. Khai eventually grows accustomed to, and even fond of, having her around, but will that be enough for Esme?

Helen Hoang based Esme on her real-life mother, a war refugee who came to the U.S. from Vietnam and eventually became a successful restaurant owner. Esme herself turns out to be an incredibly resourceful, hard-working and ambitious young woman who decides to use her time in California to educate and improve herself as much as possible. And I loved Khai’s relationship with his family members, particularly his big brother Quan, who is always looking out for him (and hopes he won’t let Esme get away). This is a big-hearted and captivating book that offers authentic and sympathetic portraits of characters we don’t often encounter in contemporary fiction.

“The Proposal” by Jasmine Guillory

The ProposalPublic proposals of marriage are everywhere lately. There was the contestant on “Jeopardy!” who popped the question to his girlfriend during the portion of the show usually reserved for anodyne chats with Alex Trebek. Director Glenn Weiss, immediately after winning an Emmy Award, looked down from the stage and asked his lady love to marry him. The boyfriend of a New York City marathoner couldn’t wait until she crossed the finish line, and he was criticized for breaking out the ring at Mile 16. Not even author events are safe; Tom Hanks, on tour to promote his book Uncommon Type, helped an audience member propose during the Q&A session. Who wouldn’t want the voice of Woody from “Toy Story” involved in their special moment?

“Luckily, she said yes,” People magazine noted about the Hanks-aided proposal. But what if she’d said no—and footage of the event, posted online by onlookers, had gone viral?

That’s the clever concept behind Jasmine Guillory’s The Proposal, the charming follow-up to her delightful debut, The Wedding Date. Nikole Patterson was not expecting her boyfriend of five months to ask for her hand in marriage during a Dodgers game, via a message on the Jumbotron. (The fact that he misspelled her name didn’t help.) Despite the cameras in her face, a flustered Nik knows she doesn’t want to accept the ring; she just wants to get away. A brother and sister sitting nearby help her escape the stadium, but there’s still enough video of Nik to make the “SportsCenter” highlights show. Suddenly, her Twitter mentions are blowing up, and not in a good way.

Nik’s relationship with the man who proposed is over, but she can’t stop thinking of the guy who helped her get away after the fiasco at the game. Carlos is a handsome, single doctor; Nik tracks him down and sends him a thank-you email. One thing leads to another, and before long, they’re enjoying a rebound relationship. But Nik, who is busy building her career as a freelance journalist, is adamant that she only wants some no-strings-attached fun. Is Carlos willing to accept her terms?

The Proposal has a lot of great supporting characters, including Nik’s best friends Dana and Courtney, and Carlos’s extended family; his cousin Jessie, pregnant with her first child, has been diagnosed with a condition that confines her to bed, and the rest of the clan is worried sick. After his father’s death, Carlos has taken on the role of patriarch and family problem-solver, something that isn’t always great for his own health and stress levels.

One way Carlos relaxes is by cooking, and there are a lot of descriptions of food in this book—don’t read it on an empty stomach! Nik’s pal Courtney owns a cupcake shop, too. The Proposal is the literary equivalent of a chilled glass of rosé (Nik’s favorite wine) and a chocolate cupcake with sprinkles: sweet and refreshing.