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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.