Romance has been understandably reluctant to put the pandemic on the page. A handful of authors have tried, but audience reaction has been decidedly negative. It seems that acknowledging Covid torpedoes the sense of escapism people are hungry for.
But Mia Hopkins’s Eastside Brewery series, begun in 2018, has never shied from difficult realities. Two of the three Rosas brothers are ex-felons, with all the social and emotional baggage that entails. In this latest installment, TANKED (Little Stone, ebook, $4.99), Angel, the youngest, has become involved in the world of illegal underground fights. He battles out of trauma — a lonely childhood spent, in large part, with an abusive uncle — and to ensure he’s never left defenseless again. Our heroine, Deanna, is a social worker whose last relationship ended when her ex turned violent, so she has more than enough reason to distrust a man who fights for a living. Life was hard for both of them long before the pandemic made everything worse.
In “Tanked,” we’re galaxies away from the glamour of ballrooms and boardrooms: Hopkins’s characters live in a Los Angeles that Angel describes bluntly as a “cold gray world.” Angel fears for the future of his brothers’ brewery business, and Deanna starts the book being laid off from her job. Meanwhile, the pandemic has infiltrated daily life: Rapid tests are taken, masks are worn, loved ones who test positive have to isolate in a cloud of dread and fear. It is a very real narrative grind that echoes what life demands of people right now, in this country, in this moment.
And it turned out to be exactly what I needed.
Escapism is marvelous, but it is also an immense relief to see a fearful reality acknowledged and taken seriously. Against all that dread and uncertainty, the sun breaks of everyday joy shine all the brighter. Hopkins gives us family feasts and new babies, good marriages and shared triumphs — and sex scenes of such poetic, luxurious filth that you wish there were something like a Pulitzer for orgasms.
This is not a romance that whisks you away. This is a romance that welcomes you home.
Hopkins’s hero may be named Angel, but the leads in two other recent romances are quite literally angelic.
Olivia Atwater’s Regencies have always reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones — but her charming new contemporary, SMALL MIRACLES (Starwatch, ebook, $5.99), with its amusing footnotes and divine beings questioning the status quo, brings to mind the work of Terry Pratchett.
Gadriel was the Angel of Small Miracles until a disagreement about whether chocolate is a sin transformed them into the Fallen Angel of Petty Temptations. Now, to pay off a debt to the Angel of Good Fortune, they’re meant to be tempting a human named Holly Harker into some minor sins.
The only problem: Holly is untemptable. Not by Gadriel as a man, a woman or an adorable fluffy cat. And the harder Gadriel works to solve the problem, the more they become enmeshed in Holly’s life. Next thing you know they’ve got a human identity (gender variable) and a job (school counselor).
If I tried listing everything I love about this book, we’d never leave. The humans are engaging, the angels are just alien enough to be people without necessarily being human, the villain is legitimately terrifying, the celestial bureaucracy is fleshed out in especially thoughtful ways. It’s everything I’ve come to expect from this author, and ensures I’ll follow her in any genre she writes.
Atwater’s books are kissing-only — so if it’s on-page angel sex you’re after, you’ll want to look at the next book.
Freydís Moon’s EXODUS 20:3 (independently published, paper, $7.99) may have a biblical title, but this queer, sex-positive spin on religious romance would scandalize most readers of inspirationals, which are usually set in American evangelical Christianity and focus on the redemption arc (even when the sin being atoned for is something as appalling as genocide). Moon’s work is a thoughtful, fresh take that will go on my recommendation list alongside Tamsen Parker’s “Craving Flight,” set in an Orthodox Jewish community, and Uzma Jalaludin’s “Ayesha at Last,” a modern-day Muslim retelling of “Pride and Prejudice.”
In this vein, Moon’s nimble, surreal novella features a trans handyman repairing a ruined desert church who finds unexpected redemption in the love of a Brazilian angel with the full staggering biblical complement of extra hands and wings and eyes and, um, other parts. The writing is gorgeous, provocative both in the sense of erotic and for being doctrinally quite bold (the discussion of idolatry is particularly fascinating, and made me wish I had a theologian on speed-dial).
It’s the kind of sensual, punk, queer-celebrating, poverty-alleviating, social-justice Catholicism I feel blessed to catch glimpses of now and again. And as with the other two books in this column, it challenges us to look with clear eyes at the world and love it anyway, even as we try to fix what’s broken.