10 Romantic Books to Read…Because Romance is Awesome

Today, Book Riot published a piece entitled “5 Romantic Books to Read in February (even if you hate romance).”

I could rant about this (see me respond to romance trolls here and here), but I don’t want to–not because the assumptions and commentary in the Book Riot list aren’t frustrating but because I’d rather celebrate the wonderful writing that I see in genre romance.

Every book here I’ve recommended to friends and family. Many I’ve forced onto people when they insist to me, “No, I don’t like romance.” I can’t say that every one of these conversion attempts has succeeded–but these books all have sharp writing, smart plots, and fascinating characters. These are perfect for February or July or anytime; they aren’t organized in any particular order.

1.) The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley, novel with strong romantic elements

Kearsley’s prose is lovely. Anyone who thinks the writing in romance is substandard should pick her books up. From the opening page of The Winter Sea, they’ll find a strong sense of history and place and not one but two compelling romances. Once I’d started it, I could not put it down. I’ve given easily half a dozen copies as gifts, and almost everyone I’ve gifted it to has gone on to read everything Kearsley has published.

2.) The Iron Duke, Meljean Brook, steampunk
Brook writes my favorite steampunk world in the Iron Sea series and any of the books or novellas in it would be good for those individuals who think they don’t like romance. (It’s worth saying that the titular Iron Duke does something almost unforgivable in this book.) Brook’s prose is crisp and compelling, the characterizations interesting, and the world, well, riveting. If this series isn’t adapted into a film, I’ll be pissed.
3.) Welcome to Temptation, Jennifer Crusie, contemporary
As far as I’m concerned, Crusie is the queen of smart, hilarious contemporary romances. This dance between grifter-adjacent Sophie Dempsey and small town mayor Phin Tucker is my favorite. The dialogue is delightful and the chemistry sizzling.

4.) Written on Your Skin, Meredith Duran, historical
This is a controversial choice, probably, but it’s my favorite Duran. The opening chapter is exquisite: a party swirls around Phin (yes, another Phin), a British spy in late nineteenth century Hong Kong, as he contemplates the heiress Mina with more than a little contempt. Except then she saves his life. Five years later, they’re swept up in a thriller. Read it. Read all the Duran.
5.) A Lady Awakened, Cecilia Grant, historical
Cecilia Grant is writing my favorite historical romances today. That she isn’t better known and more celebrated tells me a lot about the market–and frankly, it isn’t flattering. Maybe a better place to start with this series is the recently published novella A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong–both because it’s lighter and less reliant on understanding the genre’s tropes. But to me, A Lady Awakened is perfect. It’s brave and wonderful.
6.) Glitterland, Alexis Hall, contemporary/GLBT
This was a much-buzzed about book that I adored. The prose is terrific and the characterizations fascinating. Anyone who spent a little too much time in the academy and is still recovering will instantly recognize herself in Ash. For more on why this book is gang-busters, I point you in the direction of Elisabeth Lane’s lengthy, thoughtful review.
7.) Something About You, Julie James, contemporary
If were single-ier, thinner, more stylish, and more lawyer-y, my goal in life would be to become a Julie James heroine. Her books always deliver for me. The dialogue is hilarious and smart, the characters appealing, and the blend of legal and romantic plots perfect. If this is the sort of escapism people pooh-pooh in romance, well, I’m okay with that.
8.) The Lotus Palace, Jeannie Lin, historical
This is one of my all-time favorite cross-class romances. And one of my favorite romantic mysteries. And just one of my favorite books. The invocation of place and era is lovely. I adored Yue-ying and Bai Huang–and the tradeoffs they had to make to be together. Anyone who thinks romance is just dukes and ballrooms needs to read this book.
9.) The Siren, Tiffany Reisz, contemporary/erotica
Another buzzy book that more than delivered for me, I give this to people who like to complain about Fifty Shades of Grey (though more often than not, they haven’t read that either). It’s high on kink and low on sex and follows the romantic travails of the erotica author and professional dominant Nora. It’s not truly a genre romance (at least not in this volume, which now has numerous sequels and prequels), but its mediations on art, writing, the market, “The Gift of the Magi,” and religion (yes religion) are fascinating.
10.) The Forbidden Rose, Joanna Bourne, historical
I’m trying not to let historical romance overwhelm this list, but I cannot omit Bourne, whose spy romances set in Europe between the French Revolution and the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars are simply awesome. If you wore out a copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel when you were a child, you need to read this book. There isn’t a sentence in it that isn’t true, that doesn’t contribute to the voices of Maggie and William. Bourne isn’t merely one of the most interesting voices in romance today–she’s writing flat-out terrific books.
I’d also recommend Sherry Thomas, Mary Ann Rivers, and Laura Florand. And Lauren Willig, Courtney Milan, and Deanna Raybourne. And my critique partner Genevieve Turner. And if I were feeling especially ballsy, myself. The recommendations could keep flowing on and on.
To be clear: no one should read books that they don’t want to. So if someone thinks romance isn’t for her, I’m not invested in convincing her she’s wrong. But subversive, interesting, writerly things are happening in genre romance and I’m glad elitism hasn’t blinded me to them.

16 thoughts on “10 Romantic Books to Read…Because Romance is Awesome

  1. This list is absolutely fantastic, and I’ve added all these books in my to read pile once I get this terrible 1st chapter finished

    1. Those first chapters are pesky! For you, I’d particularly recommend Meljean Brook, Jennifer Crusie, Alexis Hall, and Tiffany Reisz.

    1. Dreaming of You is one of my favorite romances (and it’s one of the first ones I read, along with Lord of Scoundrels), but the other Kleypas books I read were uneven. What are your other favorites by her?

      And Loretta Chase probably belongs on here too. Mr. Impossible, Lord Perfect, Last Night’s Scandal, and LoS are all delightful.

      1. I haven’t read Dreaming of You if you can believe it! I always hear about that one, I really need to pick it up! I really enjoyed Suddenly You, and I recently picked up one of her Hathaways, TMaT, and enjoyed that as well. I think my favorite of hers is actually Stranger in My Arms.

    1. The Iron Sea books are wonderful; the world is so well realized and the female characters are terrific (the heroes too, but especially the women). Jeannie Lin is publishing a steampunk series set in an alternate version of the Opium Wars that I’ve heard great things about and I really like Kristen Callihan’s The Darkest London series.

  2. This is a wonderful list: you have some of my favourite books on here: the Kearsley definitely (I push her constantly); I prefer BET ME to WtT, but hey, Crusie, clever and funny, so it doesn’t matter which one you read. They’re both good! My favourite Duran is AT YOUR PLEASURE: I reread it over the holidays and it was sublime. She’s written my favourite cross-class too, A LADY’S LESSON IN SCANDAL. Grant is writing the best in histrom, in my opinion, though Bourne’s THE FORBIDDEN ROSE can give her a run for it. A LADY AWAKENED is my favourite too. I read Lin’s THE JADE TEMPTRESS and I still think about it. And I just started GT’s SUMMER CHAPPARAL!! I would add Rose Lerner to that list: IN FOR A PENNY and SWEET DISORDER. Also, for great writing and contemporary romance, all Molly O’Keefe all the time … adored her histrom Western too!

    1. I realize that my love of Written on Your Skin is idiosyncratic. It’s opening chapter is (to my mind) brilliant. And Mina is my favorite type of heroine: the one the hero underestimates and who comes into her own and is just a bit prickly. It’s my cat-nip.

      I like Lerner, but her books are in such conversation with genre conventions, I don’t know that they’d be quite as appealing to an outsider. But maybe I’m wrong.

      1. Hmmm, I see what you mean about Lerner … I think maybe her début is more free of that counterpoint than the more recent work. I think, however, that the prose and ideas would appeal, let’s say to some of my colleagues, more than other titles.

    1. I love Flowers from the Storm, specifically the play with Christian’s POV and everything about Maddie. But for the reasons we’ve talked about (e.g., Christian not seeing Maddie as an equal even at the end), I don’t find the romance quite as satisfying. She’s a wonderful, wonderful writer though and I particularly think she’s good at talking about the genre and writing (which not every writer is).

  3. Great list. Meredith Duran is one of my must-buys and I flove “Written on Your Skin” but my favorite Duran is still her first: “Duke of Shadows” Sigh, simply sigh.

    1. Yeah, I knew Written on Your Skin would be an usual choice. I think I’m probably alone in that being my favorite. ; )

      I was shocked a few months ago when I saw a discussion on Twitter about the best romance writers who haven’t been nominated for a RITA and someone mentioned Duran. I went through the lists several times just to check–and it was true! I love her voice. Let’s hope this is her year with Fool Me Twice.

  4. re: Miss Bates: yes, Lerner’s prose is lovely. And her characters are smart and appealing. In for a Penny and Sweet Disorder were two of my favorite reads last year. I’m not reading much these days, but True Pretenses is waiting on my Kindle for me. I’m looking forward to it!!

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