You may have noticed that I think romance is worth reading. But I know from experience that it’s daunting to wade into the sea of water-coloured semi-naked chests. The genre is the most prolific in the world – so where do you even begin?
First: some terminology. According to the Romance Writers of America, a romance novel has “a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending”. Check.
It will also help you to understand the difference between Category and Single-title romance. Category is the Mills and Boon style book you probably snuck out of your mum’s sock drawer as a kid. They’re around 180 pages long, and they focus tightly on the central romance. Single title is much longer (around 380 pages), and while the romance is still the central element there’s more room to explore subplots and secondary characters, and the hero and heroine can take a longer journey towards each other.
So now when I say this it’ll make sense: I only read single title, so that’s what I’ll be recommending here.
One final note: Most of the historicals I read are set in the Regency, roughly 1780s-1840s England (that’s not the strict historical period, but the loose literary period of the same name). Think Jane Austen, who is the Mac Mama of Regency romance.
My favourite historical romance series is Lisa Kleypas‘s Hathaways. It’s Victorian rather than Regency, but I absolutely adore them – particularly the last three. Her website’s pretty crap, so here’s the proper order: Mine Till Midnight, Seduce Me at Sunrise, Tempt Me at Twilight, Married by Morning, Love in the Afternoon. You don’t necessarily have to start at the beginning, but the whole family’s gorgeous, so I would recommend enjoying them with the cumulative effect. She’s also written a lot of Regency romance, but I don’t like it as much as these. Her other Victorian series, The Wallflowers, is also a good read.
Eloisa James is a fantastic writer – probably the most consistently good of all the Regency authors I read. When she’s not wearing her romance hat, she’s a professor of Shakespeare. Her novels have a lovely wit and intelligence, and her historical settings are well-drawn. I particularly love her Essex Sisters quartet and the Desperate Duchesses series (this is set in Georgian times).
Julia Quinn is the queen of the lighthearted romp. My love affair with romance began with Ms Quinn. She can be a bit hit and miss, but the early Bridgertons are all really good and I loved her recent book What Happens in London. It’s part of a three-book series, but I didn’t think much of the other two, and it can definitely be read alone.
Loretta Chase wrote one of my all-time favourite romance novels, Lord of Scoundrels. This book consistently wins romance reader polls – by a huge margin. None of her others that I’ve tried have appealed to me in quite the same way, though her heroes are always delicious. She goes with the theory that if you can make them tall and gorgeous, why wouldn’t you?
Gaelen Foley writes much darker regency books, which I really love. Her themes and plots and characters are more complex and angsty than the more Austen-esque authors. I’ve only read her Knight Miscellany series, but except for the second book I loved them all.
Elizabeth Hoyt was a real favourite of mine for ages. Her Princes trilogy is silly and sexy and surprisingly touching. Her writing is also immensely readable. I was disappointed with her Four Soldiers quartet, and though her new series has generated a lot of positive buzz I wasn’t sold on it either. Disappointment! Still, she’s worth a go.
Julie Anne Long is very wordy, probably too wordy, but in such a gorgeous, startling, melodramatic way, that I forgive her anything. She’s really pushing what the language of romance can do, and her characters are very real, very flawed, very lovable. Her Pennyroyal Green series is well worth reading. I’ve found the books overall a bit hit and miss, but everyone disagrees about which are the hits and which are the misses, so it’s worth trying them all to find out where you stand. But whatever you do make sure and read What I Did For a Duke – probably my favourite romance. The books can be read out of order without too much trouble.
I mention Meredith Duran a lot on this blog, because I think of all the newer writers, she’s pushing the boundaries of what romance can be. Her stories and characters are complex, and often quite dark. Her books are set in the 1890s. She writes a blog with Sherry Thomas, who writes in the same period. Thomas’s stories have something about them that I’ve rarely found elsewhere, and it’s a bit hard to describe. Her writing’s easy and lyrical, her characters are flawed and human, but in a gorgeous, warm, sympathetic sort of a way. I love her.
I don’t read much contemporary, but there are two women I absolutely adore. One is Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Her football series (Chicago Stars) is brilliant. You don’t need to worry about reading them in any particular order (you’ll learn to pick a previous book’s hero from miles away, when he makes a cameo!). These books are really of the old-school – they have alpha heroes, wilful heroines, reality-bending premises and a dark, angsty moment where all seems lost.
The other is Jenny Crusie. She can be very hit and miss, but when she hits, it’s out of the ballpark. My favourite by her is Agnes and the Hitman, which she wrote in collaboration with Bob Mayer. I also loved Bet Me, Welcome to Temptation and Faking It. She does random bunches of people becoming family better than any other author I’ve read. Her blog is fantastic, too, and she has loads of excellent essays for writers on her website.
PARANORMAL (these tend towards erotica on the hotness scale!)
Kresley Cole‘s Immortals After Dark series was what got me reading paranormal – and as I discovered, paranormal is highly addictive. The first five or so books of the series were incredibly enjoyable: Her heroines are smart-mouthed and kick-ass, and her heroes are alpha in the best possible way. Something weird starts happening in the later books, where the abuse the hero and heroine have to take from each other before they can be together tips over into not-quite-right. Still, the first books are well worth a try, if you like paranormal.
JR Ward‘s Black Dagger Brotherhood have been massively successful, and I loved reading them. Her “colloquial” language is kind of hilarious and many people think the series are too over the top, but I just got into the overabundance of everything, and went with it. They’re quite dark, and the bad guys are a bit boring. She’s gotten to the point where she’s cycled through all her core characters, so the series feels like it’s falling apart a bit – though she’s just introduced a new band of characters who could shake things up.
There are many, many romance blogs out there. The two I regularly follow are Dear Author (each review is an open letter to the author) and Gossamer Obsessions – which posts far less regularly, but is hilarious and intelligent. One of the major romance blogs is Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, but they tend to review a lot of category, so I don’t read them that often.
Sarah from Smart Bitches and Jane from Dear Author have a podcast that I really enjoy listening to while I cook. It’s possibly more interesting to listen to if you’re well-versed in the genre, but they have a lot of recommendations and the like.
A final warning: ROMANCE NOVELS HAVE A LOT OF GRAPHIC SEX IN THEM. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to add this as a warning, except that almost everyone I’ve lent romance to has been taken aback by the sex. So, yeah, there’s sex. It’s all sex-positive, and more than that it’s female-positive. In fact, it’s one of the things I love about the genre – how it says to women: Your sexuality is great. You should enjoy it.