I’ve been a romance reader for pushing two decades, hooked by their unapologetic commitment to women as main characters and endless interest in the fine-grained specifics of human emotion. But the last year has only deepened my appreciation for the genre, which has provided a refuge from political turbulence, even as I’ve taken on the responsibilities of becoming a parent. I’m certainly not the first new mother to have been kept company through nighttime feedings by these books. They’re a means to claw back some time that’s purely my own; settling in with one of these books feels like drawing a heavy velvet curtain around myself. And yet, they’re also deeply engaged with the most pressing issues of the wider world.
I know lots of highly intellectual arguments about the cultural importance of romance—primarily, its value as a place to discuss sex and women’s experiences in the world—which I completely believe. But truthfully, I’m a fan because at their best, they give me the buzzy, bubbly feeling of hearing a wedding band segue into an Earth Wind and Fire hit, or unexpectedly spotting a dear friend across a crowded room, or eating a fully loaded hot dog at a baseball game. Pure, pure pleasure.
So! Think of this like speed dating. I’ve curated this admittedly somewhat idiosyncratic list with an eye to books that I think make good introductions specifically for the audience of Jezebel; many of them are relatively new releases. I have tried very hard not to let my personal obsessions overtake this post—I could read a Regency romance a day for the rest of my life and never get tired of them—and consequently, I’ve left out some of my very favorites. And there are some authors, books, and series that are just more fun when you have more familiarity with the tropes, which are legion. By the same token, my gaps are this post’s omissions, hence the poor representation of small-town contemporary romance, a popular and beloved subgenre that I’ve never quite learned my way around. I hope that fans will provide some suggestions in the comments!
Have seen every costume drama available on Amazon Prime (twice): Frankly, I’m not sure why you aren’t already reading historical romance? Anyway, it’s not too late to remedy that. While it’s the subgenre that perhaps suffers most from the “bodice ripper” stereotype, it’s my personal favorite, and it’s full of avowedly feminist writers. Courtney Milan’s novella The Governess Affair acknowledges that the vulnerable position of these women who’ve become such a popular trope, spinning that awful reality into a beautiful story about recovery. (Free on Kindle!) Sarah MacLean’s latest series, Scandal and Scoundrel, started out riffing on modern celebrity gossip and concluded with a book where she rewrote the hero in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape. Meredith Duran’s Lady Be Good and Luck Be a Lady are closely tied, weaving between the British upper crust and the East End.
If you’re looking to ease in a little more slowly, Sherry Thomas, who writes a lovely historical romance, currently has a gender-flipped Sherlock Holmes series going, which is maybe slightly more romance adjacent and would be a good way to test the waters. Though, honestly, if you’ve seen and enjoyed North and South at least twice, you could probably grab almost any historical from the last five to ten years and enjoy it. They are almost certainly extremely your shit and you don’t even know it yet.
Read loads of American history: Beverly Jenkins’ classic Indigo, which follows a woman who’s honored to have an Underground Railroad hero recuperating in her home—until she realizes that he is a handsome pain in her ass. (Don’t worry, they come to an understanding that culminates in a speech at church referencing the Song of Solomon.)
Are actually dying for Hollywood to get back into rom coms: A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole is just delightful and a perfect read for the #RoyalWedding2018 frenzy. It follows a mostly charming prince who arrives in Manhattan from his prosperous African nation to reclaim the betrothed who disappeared as a child. I knew I’d love the STEM-working heroine when she first encounters a real tool who works in her lab:
“How are you this morning?” she asked him in the tone she’d heard secretaries use on old syndicated TV shows use to placate their sexist bosses. Brian smiled; he’d watched the same reruns it seemed.
“Actually, I’m a little behind in my work after getting back from the Keystone conference.” That was when Naledi noticed the sheaf of papers in his hands.
This motherfucker, she thought.
I’ve been completely charmed by Lucy Parker’s London celebrities series, featuring a bunch of theater pros with extremely good banter. And Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date, which is everywhere right now, opens with the lead couple getting stuck in an elevator and the hero attempting to wheedle some cheese and crackers out of the heroine in the most charming way possible.
I’m also putting Tessa Dare here, even though one typically associates romcoms with contemporary settings, because her books so totally crack me up. I personally recommend the Castles Ever After series; book number one features medieval LARPers of the Regency era, while another has a plot twist involving a lobster.
Enjoy movies and TV shows about politicians, but GOOD ones: The thoroughly sweet Coffee Boy by Austin Chant; one of the heroes begins his journey from apparent stick-in-the-mud when he brings the proverbial hammer down on somebody consistently misgendering his love interest, the coffee-grabbing intern of the title, at the campaign where they both work.
Related: You want something that acknowledges how miserable the news is making you but also provides some escape: Try the Rogue Desire anthology series, which is a great way to sample a lot of good authors with liberal politics who are also sick to goddamn death of the orange menace.
Like watching reality TV—almost as much as learning the secrets behind reality TV: Take the Lead by Alexis Daria, which follows the romance of a professional dancer on a So You Think You Can Dance style competition with one of the new entrants—a gruff bearded giant who grudgingly stars in an Alaskan survivalist show with the rest of his family. The heroine, while very capable, is prone to occasionally getting overwrought, something to which I deeply relate, and it’s also a very nice depiction of IRL New York City, as opposed to pop culture New York City.
Are a sci-fi/fantasy fan who is romance-curious: Several years ago I very much enjoyed the first couple of Parasol Protectorate books by Gail Carringer, but had fallen off—until I spotted Romancing the Inventor, about a mathematically inclined maid and troublemaking French inventor Genevieve Lefoux. There are vampires and werewolves and also steampunk, but with a light touch, and they are written in the archly formal old-school Regency romance style that I particularly love. Also good is Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, which is like Pride and Prejudice but if accomplished young ladies were expected to have just a touch of magic along with their drawing and singing (but never enough to make a career on the stage, heaven forbid).
Want more werewolves and vampires, specifically: I’m not the best authority on paranormal as it currently stands because I read so many vampire novels as a teenager that I burned out and can barely stand a casual ghost anymore. However! I recently revisited a book from the middle of Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series, which has been running for several years, and I really enjoyed that it features a house full of Valkyries who love each other and also scream at each other constantly and I can’t tell you how deeply such an atmosphere speaks to me right now. Nalini Singh is also thoroughly beloved, specifically her Psy-Changeling series, about psychics and shape-shifters.
Are interested in the IDEA of Fifty Shades of Grey in THEORY, but not as it was executed: The great news is you have loads of choices, because Fifty Shades opened the floodgates for lots of better books. Start with Alexis Hall’s very cheeky Arden St. Ives trilogy, which is a very deliberate riff on the billionaire dom trope in general and full of references to Fifty Shades in particular. The third book isn’t due out until later this year, sadly, but the first, How to Bang a Billionaire, was very fun and there is no better way to get totally hooked than hunting for an in-the-meantime fix.
Wished Fifty Shades were the other way around: Start with Have Mercy, by Shelly Ann Clark. A couple of touring musicians with too-good chemistry.
Enjoy Shondaland levels of angst: Frankly, SAME. Definitely start with Alisha Rai. Her current Forbidden Hearts series, which starts with Hate to Want You, is really wonderful, and if you like that, you can move onto her lady billionaire in A Gentleman in the Streets. Angsty but you DO get the happy endings!
Constantly dream of moving to a small town out west but also you need to know the Tinder situation is good: Definitely Victoria Dahl. I particularly like her Girls’ Night Out series, one of which features a mom in her 40s and another of which features a sort of prickly medical illustrator and yet another which features a biker and a kitten and a librarian.
End your day with SportsCenter: Santino Hassell’s series following fictional New York football team The Barons starts with Illegal Contact, about Gavin, a famously grumpy star player who gets stuck on house arrest in his mansion in the Hamptons after brawling with a frat boy who planned to blackmail his teammate and friend with a sex tape, and Noah, the not-particularly-interested-in-football personal assistant hired to help him out.
Love wild internet stuff and you enjoyed Chuck Tingle: I’ve got three words for you: Ice. Planet. Barbarians.