Hunting for Happily Ever After: a massive pile of romance novel recs

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Image by Rowan Heuvel. Used under a CC0 license.

Yes, you read that right. Romance novels. I’m not going to defend my taste in reading material  when Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (check out the podcast!) does such an excellent job of it. There’s also Kelly Faircloth over at Jezebel with an examination of just why romance gets such an undeservedly terrible rap, not to mention this long (and eye-opening!) history of Harlequin. For a more intellectual perspective, here’s tenured academic Catherine M. Roach’s first experience at the Romance Writers’ of America’s annual convention.

While some people’s experience with romance might be limited to Georgette Heyer, or Mills and Boons with ridiculously over-the-top-titles (The Playboy Sheik’s Virgin Stable-Girl, anyone?) the genre is actually hugely diverse, with something for just about everyone. This post is just a small sampling of what’s out there, with the caveat that it’s pretty heavily influenced by what I like to read – in other words, Regency romances, and heroines with spine and spunk, and a little bit of action mixed in with the romance.

So, without further ado… a whole raft of dashing heroes, feisty heroines, and happily ever afters under the cut!

Historical Romances

  • Julia Quinn, The Bridgerton Series. Julia Quinn is probably my first love (and the first author that comes to mind) when it comes to romance. Her best works (and my favourite of the lot) is the eight-volume original Bridgerton series, about a family of noble siblings and the various ways they find the men or women of their dreams. Brilliantly written, laugh-out-loud funny (seriously, I’ve dropped my book from laughing so hard) and filled with loveable characters and great sex.
  • Stephanie Laurens, The Cynsters and the Bastion Club. Like Ms. Quinn, Ms. Laurens is another of my old favourites, specifically the original Bar Cynster novels and the wonderful gentlemen of the Bastion Club. It’s been a while since I read them so I’m afraid I have no specific recommendations other than the fact that they’re still clearly memorable even years later.
  • Loretta Chase, The Dressmakers. What further proof do you need of Ms. Chase’s writing abilities than the fact that I – rather than spending the day translating, as I was supposed to – inhaled all four of her Dressmakers series, a delightful four-book romp about the adventures of a family of modistes, a refreshing departure from the haute ton that so many historical romances focus on? I haven’t read it yet, but I’m told that Lord of Scoundrels is one of the best romance novels ever written.

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  • Beverly Jenkins, Indigo and Forbidden. This list was getting a little too whitebread, even for romance, so what better way to remedy that than Beverly Jenkins? Easily one of the best writers out there, with a focus on the American West. Ms. Jenkins isn’t afraid to deal with tough topics – Indigo deals with the Underground Railroad, Forbidden with race relations and the fraught politics of passing and privilege – but these books are nevertheless hopeful as well as heartbreaking, and an excellent addition to your bookshelf.
  • Lisa Kleypas, The Wallflowers. Ask ten romance readers what got them into the genre, odds are at least three will tell you the name of a Lisa Kleypas book. While her most famous/beloved book, Devil in Winter, can be a bit of a hit-or-miss (you either love or hate Gabriel St. Vincent, and that’s all the spoilers you’re getting from me) there’s a very good chance you’ll fall in love with at least one of her books.
  • Elizabeth Hoyt, the Maiden Lane series. I’ve only read the first book in the series, but I love it. It’s a rollicking romp of a book, cracktastic in the best way. Bonus: later books in the series contain a female swashbuckling vigilante!
  • Amanda Quick, Otherwise Engaged. A quick-witted, globe-trotting heroine, a charming, inventor hero who’s secretly a spy for the Crown, hot on the trail of a serial killer… what’s not to love? And even if you don’t, Amanda Quick (the pseudonym of prolific author Jayne Anne Krentz) has such a long backlist that you’re sure to find something to catch your fancy.
  • Mary Balogh, the Bedwyn Saga and the Survivors’ Club. So, confession time: Mary Balogh was one of the first historical romances I ever read, back when I was still nicking my Mum’s romances when she wasn’t looking. The Bedwyn saga is traditional Regency romance, sort of a stepping stone between the bodice-rippers of the 80s and the more modern sensibilities of the Survivors’ Club. That’s not to say that it’s badly researched, or that there are anachronisms – indeed, Ms. Baloch is a past master at making sure she’s got the tone and language just right – but that it might take a little getting used to… but it’s definitely worth it!
  • Courtney Milan, the Brothers Sinister series. Really, how can you not fall in love with a series where one of the books revolves around a suffragette, another has a character from the Indian subcontinent who’s not a coolie or an ayah or any sort of awful stereotype, a third whose heroine has a Mysterious Past (TM) and all with sparkling dialogue, brilliant plot and pacing, and absolutely kick-ass characters? And as if that isn’t enough, she’s awesome on Twitter. Run, don’t walk, and go read her books.

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  • Tessa Dare, the Spindle Cove series and When a Scot Ties The Knot. I’m a recent Tessa Dare addict (one of the perils of grad school: it eats into your romance reading time) and I’m only a little sad that I didn’t discover her sooner. A Week to be Wicked is my favourite of her novels, half for the completely ridiculous, hijink-filled plot, half for how well she carried it off.
  • Meredith Duran, Duke of Shadows. So I wasn’t too sure about recommending this book, since it’s about British characters during the Revolt of 1857. But between a recommendation from a historian friend (thanks, Archana!) and the face that the hero is part Indian, I decided it was worth a shot. Trigger warning, though, for graphic violence. If you don’t feel like dealing with a tumultuous period of our history from a British perspective, I recommend Duran’s other books, Written On Your Skin and Wicked Becomes You.
  • Grace Burrowes, The Captive. While the tortured hero is a mainstay of romance novels, it’s not often that one of them actually has PTSD, and even less often that it’s written well and sensitively, and with an adorable child character to boot. What makes this series even more interesting is that Christian’s torturer is the hero of the next book… and it actually works.
  • Megan Frampton, Put Up Your Duke. So when Cyclone Vardah knocked out my internet for the better part of a month (kudos to ACT for getting it back up, best New Year’s gift ever!) I wound up reading a lot of old favourites… and discovering some new ones. I really like this book because it’s not love at first sight… the main characters fall in love as they get to know each other, and while there’s no major conflict (at least between the protagonists) the plot is very well done and feels true to the time period. And Isabella’s sister is an absolute delight!

Contemporary Romances

Not everyone is as in love with historical romances as I am, so for those of you who prefer their reads a little closer to our time period, here’s a list of contemporaries… with the caveat that I’m a Regency girl at heart and that’s where my tastes lie.

  • Alisha Rai, Pleasure and Fantasy series. Alisha Rai is self-published, but don’t let that turn you off – her books are amazing, with vivid, classy heroines, fun heroes, and absolutely sizzling sex. Bonus: Indian characters who aren’t stereotypes!

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  • Suleikha Snyder, Bollywood Confidential series. I met Suleikha on twitter, and she’s one of the smartest, funniest, sassiest people out there, and it shows in her books. I don’t even like Bollywood movies (blasphemy, I know, someone come take away my shudh Bharatiya naari card) but I love her books. As a bonus, they’re super diverse… there are inter-racial couples and same-sex couples in the series, and it’s presented in a very matter-of-fact way, which makes me love it even more.
  • Sonali Dev, A Bollywood Affair and The Bollywood Bride. Seriously, if more Bollywood movies had plots as complex and heroines as amazing as Sonali’s books, I’d be all over them. I love that her books deal with the culture clash that so many of us, especially Indian-Americans and very Westernised Indians, go through, but in a way that feels honest and real. And of course, there’s delightful banter and a happy ending.
  • Rebekah Weatherspoon, Sugar Baby Series. Yeah, I didn’t think I’d like a romance novel about sugar daddies either. But Rebekah Weatherspoon’s characters are so charming they draw you in, and it’s delightful to see a romance novel feature a plus-size Black woman who’s so happy with herself and her body… and a man who adores it and her. Ms. Weatherspoon also writes F/F and BDSM erotica, which I haven’t read, but based on this series? I’d recommend giving them a shot!
  • Abigal Barnette, The Boss series. 50 Shades done right. No, seriously. They talk about consent, protection, and there’s even recognition that hey, relationships like this require lots of communication and a good deal of negotiating – and respecting – boundaries. There was one plot twist that made me want to throw my eReader across a room, but it’s nothing that ought to trigger anybody so with that caveat in mind, enjoy a delightfully non-creepy version of Christian Grey and an Anna with an actual personality.
  • Mina V. Esguerra. When SBTB interviewed a romance author from the Phillipines (!) I knew I had to rec her on this list. The fact that she writes so well just sweetens the pot. I especially love how deftly she handles the specifics of Filipino culture and how it informs her writing. You can read an article about her here.
  • Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me. Okay, confession time. I haven’t actually read Bet Me yet. But when authors like Loretta Chase have this book on their keeper shelf? Yeah, including it on this list was a no-brainer, especially once I read the summary… and no bets what I’ll be reading tonight!
  • Meg Cabot, Boy series. Meg Cabot is better known for her delightful (and hilarious) Princess Diaries series, but she’s also the author of my favourite contemporary romance series ever. (Full disclosure: I met Meg at a signing in Lille, and found her to be just the sweetest, and so I’m pretty sure I’d love anything she wrote.) The latest in the series is The Boy is Back, but all four that have been released are a rollicking good time.
  • Anne Mather, Harlequin. This comes to you on the recommendation of my mother, since I’ve never read an Anne Mather book in my life. That might change, however, between the fact that she wrote, in all seriousness, a book titled The Brazilian Millionaire’s Love-Child (oh, Harlequin) and the fact that she does Harlequin comics.

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  • Cindy Dees, the Medusa series. I stopped reading Harlequin a long time ago (there are only so many ridiculously titled books about improbably rich men seducing beautiful virgins a body can take) but I’ve always had a soft spot for one of the first series I read, about the first-ever female Special Forces team, especially since I read them a good decade before the US Army decided to open up combat operations to women.
  • Suzanne Brockman, Troubleshooters series. Like Mary Balogh, I read this so long ago that I don’t remember specifics, except that there’s no sign of the stereotypical fainting helpless female in any of these books, and I loved that about them. Bonus: there’s an excellent short story, When Tony Met Adam, set against the backdrop of DADT for those of you who’d rather read about men in uniform.

Fantasy With Strong Romantic Elements

Not everyone loves romance. That’s okay! There are a lot of really good books (especially fantasy) that, while the romance isn’t the point, do have romantic elements which are essential to the storyline.

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  • Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown. So my buddy got this for me for Christmas, and can I just say, talk about an awesome present? Because it’s so, so much fun – fantasy, yes, but with many of the tropes subverted and an absolutely delightful romantic storyline.
  • Naomi Novik, Uprooted. I’m a huge fan of Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternate history with dragons (yes, it is exactly as awesome as it sounds) and Uprooted, a standalone fantasy that draws on Slavic myth, is the story of a village girl who must leave behind everything she knows in order to spend ten years in the service of a mysterious wizard. It’s next on my list and I’m really looking forward to it!
  • N.K. Jemisin, Inheritance Trilogy. Jemisin has won ALL THE AWARDS, and for good reason. Gorgeous writing, absolutely brilliant worldbuilding, and kick-ass characters. I love these books too much for my own good.

And now that I’ve made all your TBR piles a lot longer, time to go tackle my own. Happy reading, and tell me what’s taken your fancy in the comments!

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