Quality, Smart Romance
May 16, 2022 11:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying my hand at writing romance for fun and looking for examples of fantastic romance novels to show me the way! Within the bounds of the genre is ideal, but if there are books that have a strong romantic themes but don't quite fit, I'm interested in those too.

To me, a good romance has interesting plot and well-developed, nuanced characters, and without those they fall completely flat. Good banter and flirting is also important to me. Whiny characters, overly stereotyped gender stuff or just boringly hot people are not my thing. I know a lot of romance is intended to be light and fluffy, but I'm looking for books with at least a bit of substance. In general, the more diversity the better, but for the purposes of this question it's less important to me than the overall quality and how engaging a book is.

The best I've read recently is Red, White and Royal Blue, and I plan to read Casey McQuiston's more recent two novels. I thought the premise was fun and engaging, the protagonist was a little bratty but not obnoxiously so, characters were interesting, and the banter was top-notch. Really fun overall, and so far the best example I know of.

Hit me with your faves!
posted by switcheroo to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
What else have you read? Maybe it's very obvious (they're super-popular!) but Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Date series is pretty great (I didn't love Royal Holiday, and I haven't read While We Were Dating yet).

I also loved Linda Holmes' first book Evvie Drake Starts Over, haven't read her next one yet.

Are you only interested in contemporary romance? I am more of a historical reader, personally (and historicals have much more diverse casts of characters than they did even ten years ago).

It might help to know some books that *didn't* hit the spot for you?
posted by mskyle at 12:03 PM on May 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

I love many of the books of Penny Reid such as the Knitting in the City series, Hypothesis series, and the Winston Brothers series. She includes many neurodivergent characters, women in STEM, many genders, etc. in unusual settings. I like the plots, not too lightweight, and relatable, likeable characters. She sits at the center of a group of writers (Smartypants Romances) that are all pretty dang good.

I have also enjoyed "The Roosevelt" novels of Heidi Cullinan which deal with neurodivergent and other people with disabilities.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 12:13 PM on May 16, 2022

You’ll want to check out anything written by Courtney Milan if you haven’t already done so.

I enjoyed the banter in Well Met by Jen Deluca.

Battle Royal by Lucy Parker is pretty fun.

If you want to read the slowest of burns fantasy romance, T. Kingfisher does some good ones. My favorite is Swordheart, but they’re all good.

You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria is really well done.

I love all the female leads in Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series. I always get a book hangover when I finish the book because I’m sad that I don’t get to keep hanging out with them.
posted by Maeve at 12:19 PM on May 16, 2022 [2 favorites]

My personal sweet spot for romance is when there isn't a big ol' pile of money to make the problems go away once True Love allows the second person into the money. Carla Kelly wrote some I really liked years ago, fading in availability: The Wedding Journey and The Lady's Companion. Even there they aren't poor.

The protagonists in Longbourn are servants and not rich ones. (Servants in the household of Jane Austen characters -- I don't know if it's better to read right after a P&P reread or not.)
posted by clew at 12:36 PM on May 16, 2022

I just read two books by Alexis Hall that I think you might like. Boyfriend Material is a contempoary M/M about Luc, the estranged son of an aging rockstar, who ends up in a fake-dating situation with Oliver, an uptight lawyer, after he (Luc) has an unfortunate paparazzi run-in and needs to seem like he's in a stable, grown-up relationship. You will not be surprised to learn that real feelings ensue. There's a sequel, Husband Material, coming out this summer. Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake is the first in a series set in a fictionalized version of the Great British Bake-off. Rosaline is a single mother whose ultra-successful parents disapprove of her because she dropped out of college when she got pregnant and hasn't met their standards for success. She falls for a fellow-contestant who is exactly the kind of man her parents would approve of and is also an absolute trash-person. She needs to work through some of her issues with her parents' expectations so she can realize that she is happy with her life and find a partner who is actually good for her.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:45 PM on May 16, 2022 [5 favorites]

I am not a romance reader, but I just read two books (in a row!) by T. Kingfisher, and they really turned my head. Less steam and more mental agony: it was great!
posted by wenestvedt at 12:52 PM on May 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

I got some good suggestions when I asked a similar question. After reading a small handful, I acknowledged that the genre just doesn't work for me, EXCEPT I really liked Talia Hibbert and will keep reading her novels. They are totally light and fluffy but just so clever and pleasing.
posted by latkes at 1:06 PM on May 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions? Not strictly a romance in the modern sense but I remember being moved by the tale as a teen. I haven't read it since.

It's on Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/942/942-h/942-h.htm
posted by bz at 1:12 PM on May 16, 2022

Christina Lauren. You want Christina Lauren. And you're in luck, they (a co-author pair) have a new book out tomorrow called Something Wilder. I got an advance reader copy and it was one of the most exciting books I've read in a while. They recently trended on TikTok and a four year old book of theirs, The Unhoneymooners landed on the bestseller list for twelve weeks last year. They have literally dozens of books that range from heartfelt and yearning to hilarious romantic comedies to absolute steaming hot smut. Strong recommend!
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 1:20 PM on May 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Jennifer Crusie. Welcome To Temptation is my favorite, I also like Faking It, Bet Me, Wild Ride as top favorites.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:33 PM on May 16, 2022 [5 favorites]

I am not a romance reader either, but have really enjoyed the Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang and the subsequent two books in the series. They all involve characters on the autism spectrum. I think they qualify as "romance" books but not sure.
posted by slide at 1:59 PM on May 16, 2022 [2 favorites]

Lucy Parker‘s books are banterful.
posted by clew at 3:14 PM on May 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for recs so far! :)

Not sure if I picked up lesser works of some of these authors or just wasn't into them. I just read The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory and thought it was fine but not very remarkable. Also tried T. Kingfisher's Defensive Baking one (not sure if that was a romance or not, but same author?) and wanted so badly to like it but just could *not* get into it and stopped after a couple chapters. Should I try other books by those authors?
posted by switcheroo at 3:39 PM on May 16, 2022

I usually cite The Hating Game by Sally Thorne as the best romance novel I've ever read. Maybe it just pushed all of my own particular buttons, but I ADORED that book.
posted by leftover_scrabble_rack at 3:53 PM on May 16, 2022 [2 favorites]

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking is not a romance, no. The Kingfisher books you want are Swordheart or the Paladin novels, all set in the world of the White Rat.

Seconding Courtney Milan!

I also highly recommend the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which has gobs of smart commentary on romance and lots and lots of recommendations.
posted by suelac at 3:54 PM on May 16, 2022 [4 favorites]

Outlander series
posted by Jacqueline at 4:48 PM on May 16, 2022

This isn’t exactly what you asked for, but Theodora Taylor wrote a 'how to' book called 7 Figure Fiction: How to Use Universal Fantasy to Sell your Books to Anyone. The book is only about 150 pages and is available in paperback. It provides many examples of the fantasies woven into most successful romance novels and explains why they are so enticing. Alternatively, here’s a link to a podcast called Afternoona Delight, in which 3 romance novelists talk about the use of universal fantasy (the discussion of UF really begins around the 20 minute mark).

To answer your actual question, I recently read The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood and How to Fail at Flirting by Denise Williams, which are both on the steamy side of romance. But my favorite romances are retellings of Jane Austen novels, like Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal and Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin.
posted by kbar1 at 5:50 PM on May 16, 2022 [3 favorites]

I wanted to second:
Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall
Boyfriend Material (I liked it better than Red, White, and Royal Blue)
The Alyssa Cole Reluctant Royals series! Particularly Once Ghosted, Twice Shy (W/W) or How to Find a Princess (W/W)

I wanted to NOT suggest the Outlander Series (too much sexual violence and torture for me).

I REALLY, REALLY suggest The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun. The protagonists (M/M) are brought together on the set of a reality dating show where one is a producer and the other is the contestant dating a bunch of women. I loved the humanity of the characters as they dealt with showing the same understanding to themselves as each other (gay/indian/neuro-divergent/work-a-holic/anxious). I have read this twice this year and would read it again!

I would make a case for "It Happened One Summer" by Tessa Bailey. The protagonists (W/M) are well developed with their different perspectives that gradually converge. I like that the things that keep them apart are not stereotypical gender things, but rather LA vs. small town sensibilities and world-view. Sweet and nice for a hetero romance.

I also liked An Unexpected Kind of Love by Hayden Stone (M/M romance featuring a movie star and a book seller). Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert (M/M YA novel featuring a broke kid cut off from his family and a neuro-divergent kid on their way to a card game convention).
posted by Sauter Vaguely at 5:58 PM on May 16, 2022 [3 favorites]

Have you read Beach Read?
posted by jacquilynne at 7:26 PM on May 16, 2022

Holding myself to just one rec, I'd suggest Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn. In addition to being a lovely, swoony contemporary M/F romance, there is quite a bit of the female lead's friends. They serve to deepen the characterization AND are a sweet and painful (only a little!), cathartic illustration of the fact that love means all kinds of relationships. And if that fits the bill, the rest of her backlist is there waiting for you and is similarly great.

I'd also recommend browsing through the archives at Fated Mates. While it began as a read-along podcast in season 1, later seasons go deep on all kinds of romance novel topics, including a decent amount about writing craft. Many of the episodes have transcripts if that is easier for you. I'd suggest checking out the archive for Season 2 and Season 3 interstitial topics for book recs and then season 4's Trailblazer episodes to hear interviews with writers like Sandra Brown, Beverly Jenkins and Nora Roberts.
posted by thatquietgirl at 9:16 PM on May 16, 2022 [4 favorites]

Seconding The Unhoneymooners and Beach Read.

I recently enjoyed Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn. It’s about a British-Nigerian woman and her loving but pushy family who are concerned that she’s not married yet. I listened to the audiobook and it was excellent. (I did have to speed it up, but I usually speed up audiobooks.)

The main character is a Christian, but it’s not a Christian romance, if that makes any sense. I’m not religious and don’t enjoy religious fiction, but I did enjoy this, I think because it felt like it was just a fact about the character like her culture or her career choice. I didn’t really feel it was trying to proselytize to me as the reader.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:46 AM on May 17, 2022 [3 favorites]

Rose Lerner. I’m a freelance copyeditor whose work is about 80 percent fiction these days, and 90 percent of that is romance, so I’m picky as hell about that stuff. She’s just a gorgeous writer with unique plots, and has published an anthology with Courtney Milan and Alyssa Cole, who are recced many times above, so I think that’s a good sign. (My favorite is Sweet Disorder but all of them are delightful.)
posted by kitten kaboodle at 12:53 AM on May 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

This genre is very much my thing. It's such a good time to be a romance reader. There are soooo many good books out there, and if one writer's work doesn't do it for you, another's definitely will.

I love, love, loved Attachments and Landline by Rainbow Rowell. I think she has moved to YA, but I've found her adult romance novels to be delightful, the tiniest bit weird, funny, dry, sharp but also very moving.

Instead of bombarding you with more recommendations, I am linking you to two questions I have posted here on AskMe:

Will they or won't they book recs (not romance but with strong romantic component)

Romance novel recs
posted by unicorn chaser at 2:35 AM on May 17, 2022

Jennifer Cruisie: Getting Rid of Bradley, and Fast Women are hilarious, quick witted and charming.
Loretta Chase Mr. Impossible, and Lord of Scoundrels are two classic historical with lots of humour and witty dialogue.
posted by Enid Lareg at 9:21 AM on May 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

Going to third Jennifer Crusie. I am not really a straight up contemporary romance reader - fantasy and mysteries are more my thing - but I have read all her books at least once and most of them, twice. She is just great.

If you are open to books that slide between genres, currently I am totally absorbed by Deanna Raybourn's historic mystery romances thanks to an Askme recommendation. I love T. Kingfisher with all my heart - Swordheart! OMG! - but they are fantasies first and romances second, so if you don't like magic then you might not ever get into them.
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:17 PM on May 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

+1 for Boyfriend Material, which is very funny

And you might like The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, which is about an autistic woman who hires an escort to teacher her about sex, and is generally quite good.
posted by hungrytiger at 4:33 PM on May 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

Here to disrecommend The Hating Game, which I picked up because of the recommendation here and had to put down after less than 20 pages because of the rampant fatphobia. It utterly ruined my day.
posted by tangosnail at 12:17 PM on May 25, 2022 [3 favorites]

I just read and enjoyed Emily Henry’s Book Lovers. Also seconding Christina Lauren’s Something Wilder, which has a fun adventure story as well as the romance.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:15 PM on June 22, 2022

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