The world is dark. Romance novels help.
As we sink further into the cesspool of political hell, we feel it’s only right that we turn to the positive things in life, and bring a little light to proceedings. When I need a pick-me-up, I go to my Kindle and turn to the world of romance, and it turns out a lot of our readers do too. So, we teamed up with our good friends at Cannonball Read to put together a few recommendations for romances that will alleviate whatever ails you. Well, it was supposed to be a few. It got a lot bigger. Enjoy!
And my massive thank yous go to the Cannonball Read team for everything they’ve done and continue to do. If you’re not visiting their website on the regular then what are you doing?
Angels’ Blood by Nalini Singh: In this paranormal alternate reality, all-powerful archangels rule, the world divided into various sections with each archangel responsible for their own area. There are also the vampires who serve them, bound by contract for a hundred years to the angel who created them. If a vampire tries to break his or her contract or disobeys their angel’s orders, the Guild Hunters are tasked with taking them down. Elena Devereaux is one of those Guild Hunters, but when she is summoned to meet with the terrifying Archangel of New York, Raphael, it’s not a rogue vampire who needs hunting down - it’s an archangel who has become corrupted and is causing chaos and destruction. The headstrong Elena can’t really refuse the mission, but proves to be a complication for Raphael when he finds himself attracted to a human for the first time in his long existence. While Raphael can be a bit of an alphahole on occasion, Elena gives as good as she gets and this is a very strong start to a paranormal series, the first in the soon to be eleven books (book 11 is out on October 30th). While much of the series tells the continuing story of Elena and Raphael, there are also books about the angels and vampires who are Raphael’s second in command.
Pestilence by Laura Thalassa: This novel shouldn’t work. And it’s subject matter might be a bit too dark for total escapist read but I wanted to include because it was so different and surprising. Five years before the setting of this novel, the Four Horsemen appeared on Earth, caused some chaos and confusion and disappeared again. Now Pestilence is back, and riding through the United States and Canada, bringing disease and death with him. Sometimes as a reader, I feel a bit bad liking the vampires who have countless deaths on their heads. Well, in this one, Pestilence develops from being an evil monster on a mission from God to someone that starts having interactions with humans, and finally seeing some of the good beneath all the bad. It shouldn’t work, in this novel alone, he kills off several major cities, and yet by the end, I was rooting for Sara, the novel’s narrator, and Pestilence to figure it out. (Jen K)
A Princess in Theory and A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole: Really, you should read basically everything Alyssa Cole writes across all genres (including a wonderful dystopian inspired series named Off the Grid), but her current contemporary series is too sublime not to recommend on its own. Royal romances are tricky do pull off well as so many of them recycle the same story. Cole’s works stand out thanks to sparkling prose, unique settings and beautiful attention to detail. A Princess in Theory takes the great hook of “what if those spam emails about the African prince who wants to get in touch with you are real?” and runs with it, while A Duke by Default brings some much-needed sharpness and a new angle to the sexy Scotsman romance (this one’s a swords-maker in Edinburgh and he swears a lot! It’s too accurate to the motherland!). (Kayleigh)
Act Like It by Lucy Parker: There are several ways an author can reform an asshat, but a partner who gives as good as he/she gets is the most fun, as is a reverse Taming of the Shrew. Starring together in a West End play in contemporary London, the hero and heroine are both talented and successful. He is higher up the ladder than she, but as a theatre purist whose aspirations of influence in the arts are in conflict with his complete and utter inability to suffer fools gladly, he is in a spot of bother. Richard is rich, insanely talented, gorgeous and, as the saying goes, difficult. Lainie is droll, sharp, and sincere. They spar their way to a genuine, romantic relationship without sacrificing the arch by-play that makes them so enjoyable to begin with. (Prolixity Julien)
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell: This book is a debut that shows the promise yet to come. Rainbow Rowell writes books that are for everyone, with characters that jump off the page, and dig down into my soul and meditate there for a while. I could not help but fall in love with each of our leads as they navigated their various life struggles. Rowell delivers honest character reactions and flaws in everything she writes. Attachments is a book about maturing and making the right choices that open us up to the rest of our lives. The central premise this book hangs on is Lincoln reading the emails of two best friends, and falling for one of them along the way. What starts as part of his job (screening emails pre Y2K) quickly evolves. I’m of the opinion that Rowell manages to navigate the creepiness factor because she makes us as readers complicit in his creepery. We want him to keep reading the emails because *we* want to keep reading them and watching him grow as a person redeems the set up. If you think you won’t be able to get over the premise’s inherent creepiness, please seek out over Rainbow Rowell; Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, Landline, or Carry On. She’s worth it. (faintingviolet)
The Hating Game by Sally Thorne (or the best book Malin read in 2016): Lucinda “Lucy” Hutton and Joshua “Josh” Templeman work as personal assistants to the heads of publishing company and spend their days silently and non-so-silently loathing each other, playing games of one-up-manship against one another and driving the company’s HR to distraction. When they suddenly become direct competitors for a promotion, their mind games are taken up a notch, but all of a sudden their personal dynamic begins to change. This romance has a perfect example of the “enemies to lovers” trope, or the “I hate you, I hate you, I can’t stop thinking about your hair/dress sense/eyes etc”. The whole book is narrated from Lucy’s POV, but it’s obvious when you look for it that Joshua’s feelings for Lucy, even early on, are not really antagonistic, just highly reserved and controlled. This book is pretty much a perfect romantic comedy, and has now been optioned as a movie, with the script written by Thorne herself. (Malin)
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: Alexa and Drew meet in an elevator during a quick blackout and each experience a bit of well-placed lust. Drew rashly asks Alexa to be his date to a wedding that weekend - his ex’s wedding where he is a groomsman (oh yes, good old Romancelandia drama). Alexa says yes and we are off to the races. A single weekend turns into trading weekends as they live in opposite ends of California, which leads to misunderstandings and emotions developing that neither is ready for or expecting. Guillory built herself some very believable and nuanced characters (Alexa always has snacks in her purse!), each has their strengths, each has their weaknesses, and they don’t necessarily solve the other’s. The secondary characters serve to fill in the yelling of the reader at the main pair (why are you saying that? Why AREN’T you saying that?!), and are well-drawn and interesting on their own (Guillory’s next book The Proposal, out October 30th, features Drew’s best friend, Carlos and is literal wish fulfillment for me. Early word is that it is even better than this book). We don’t suffer instalove, the relationship builds over several months and they talk about issues that exist in our contemporary world: the gross men, the legitimate concern Alexa would feel about not knowing if she will be the only black person at a given social event, and on from there. This is a good one folks; it has meat on its bone and sexy bassline. Get on it. (faintingviolet)
Hold Me by Courtney Milan: Jay and Maria are friends online, but when they unknowingly meet irl they hate each other. Milan writes lovely romances with snappy dialogue that are also unabashedly feminist. Romance, with it’s requisite happily ever after, is a wish fulfillment fantasy. I read several reviews of Hold Me that complained that Jay was too much of an asshole to be redeemed. That’s legitimate. I think though that they put the wish fulfillment in the wrong place. Those readers want a good guy who is a good guy, even if he’s a little awkward. Courtney Milan wants a guy who thinks he’s a good guy to recognize his problematic beliefs and work through the process of change, and she wants him to do this without a woman doing the emotional labor for him. And then we all feel good about a well deserved Happily Ever After. (Emmalita)
The Weight Of it All by N.R. Walker: When Henry is dumped by his longtime boyfriend for being “fat and old,” he takes himself to the local gym in order to win him back. He meets Reed, a ridiculously good looking personal trainer who takes Henry on as a client. Henry and Reed develop a friendship which grows into something more. This is a kind and gentle book filled with funny, kind, and gentle people. I’ve reread this book so many times as a buffer to the casual cruelty I see all over the news. The descriptions of food are also cozy place for me. I have tried to recreate some of the recipes and event sent the author a picture of the beetroot tart I made. (Emmalita)
A Gentleman in the Street by Alisha Rai: Once upon a time, sultry billionaire businesswoman Akira Mori and aloof author Jacob Campbell were step-siblings for a short year. They’ve always had a thing for one another but never acted on it, until now. Where Akira is proudly liberated and unashamed of her sexual appetite, Jacob has always kept such things bottled up. I’ve talked before about how much I love this book. It’s the kind of scorching contemporary romance that hits every beat with such detail and wholehearted passion. I’m an absolute sucker for a romance where the woman is the more dominant figure, both in her professional and private life. This one also has real variety in its sex scenes, as Jacob finally opens himself up to the things he’s always wanted to experience. Really, anything Alisha Rai’s name is attached to is a must read for me but this remains her prime, in my opinion.
The Chocolate Touch by Laura Florand: Dominique is a giant lug, plus a chocolatier-patissier and a maverick in his field. He worked his way up from violence and squalor, but still has qualms about his roughness and the brutality in his past. He has potential for acting out that he keeps reined at all times. He is not afraid of what he is, but what he might become and of how it will affect those around him. In a miracle of contemporary logic, he has received psychological help for his issues. Alleluia! Hershey Corey chocolate heiress Jaime is convalescing after being severely beaten while undertaking aid work in the Third World. She is a remarkable, striving woman who nonetheless lacks confidence due to her privileged upbringing and the aftermath of the assault. She and Dominique are magnetically attracted to each other, even though neither can understand what the other person sees in them. He’s a kind of rock star, she considers herself ordinary. These two had the most issues and the most intense instant connection of the four books. It made a kind of sense for what each had been through and I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance in which the hero’s frailties were so thoroughly examined. They fall in love too fast, but not because it’s a novel, but because falling in love too fast is what people this damaged, and damaged in this way, often do. Dominique and Jaime seek refuge in each other, but in a healthy way. (Mrs Julien)
The Blackshear Family series by Cecilia Grant (A Lady Awakened, A Gentleman Undone, A Woman Entangled): This author has only written this one series, and doesn’t seem to be writing more, but what’s here is great. There is an intense focus on emotional and historical realism in these books, and a bit less of the escapism you usually find in historical romances (although it’s still there). She takes common romance premises (i.e. “My husband is dead but I need to get pregnant with his heir”, which is the plot of the first book) and manages to make them play out in ways that you don’t expect. I find this series refreshing because Grant lets the actions and choices of her characters have actual social consequences, while still giving us that all important Happily Ever After. It’s a fine balance she walks, and she does it wonderfully. The last book in particular I thought was so clever and swoonworthy. (narfna)
A Seditious Affair by K.J. Charles: This was the first book I read by this author, who mostly writes LGBTQIA historical romances, emphasis on the historical. It’s also the book of hers I’ve re-read the most, and it has an atrocious cover, so please don’t judge it. I almost put this book in the erotica section because it does have quite a bit of sex in it, especially at the beginning, but it’s all plot relevant, and very well done, and ultimately an actual historical and character-based plot is at the center. This book takes place during the Regency, but in quite a different side of it than we normally see with the ton and balls and courting and such. The two main characters are gay men who fear for their lives if their identities are discovered. One, Silas, is a poor, radical idealist, a social revolutionary, and infamous pamphleteer; and the other one, Dominic, is a high class Tory, whose job it is to track down men like the other, and try and hang them. They have been meeting for months for anonymous sex set up by third parties, but find themselves falling in love, before all hell breaks loose in their professional lives. What really makes this book, aside from the historical detail, are the small character moments. There is a lot of sex positivity, as well. One character likes a bit of kinkiness in his sex, and has been made to feel ashamed and wrong for it by a past lover, and it’s actually quite a large bit of the plot to have that character get a bit of a redemption. The rest of the series is good, too, especially the third one. They all revolve around the same group of secretly gay men trying to live their lives in a time not at all friendly to them. (narfna)
The Soldier’s Scoundrel by Cat Sebastian: The Soldier’s Scoundrel is a debut historical m/m romance in the Lisa Kleypas school of recognizable history with lovely smoldery romance woven in. We have Oliver and Jack, two men from different classes who find themselves crossing paths as war-injured Oliver returns home to find his married sister has paid Jack Turner a large sum of money, and Oliver is determined to find out what for. Turner, making his living filling in the gaps in the justice system in Regency England, will not be sharing that information if he can avoid it and is put out when Oliver Rivington inserts himself in his latest case. This is a well-written enemies-to-lovers where the relationship progress is slow-burn with undeniable sexual chemistry and tension, particularly focused on their backgrounds and personal histories. We also get a road trip, and I love how Cat Sebastian decided to maneuver these two characters into closer social circles for their happily ever after, which is strengthened by the characters ability to be accurate about their situations. This book is also first in a series, and I enjoyed The Lawrence Browne Affair at least as much as I did this one. (faintingviolet) (seconded by narfna; I love Cat Sebastian so much!)
Dukes Prefer Blondes by Loretta Chase: Oliver and Clara are a wonderful couple. They argue and bicker, often with logic. Clara has a wonderful habit of turning Oliver’s words back on him. Oliver is surprised to find an aristocratic woman with a brain. Clara is dying on the inside, bored by the life of a lady. The sparks between them are physical and intellectual, though both are reluctant to admit they have feelings. Their banter and the heat between them was stellar. Because they are on different layers of the social strata, they have to fight for their relationship. Possibly my favorite exchange in the book happens after they are married and Clara stands up to Oliver, knowing she must fight for the relationship she wants. The push pull between Clara and Oliver as individuals and their era appropriate gender roles adds tension and believability to the relationship. (Emmalita)
Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase: I had actually read Loretta Chase’s Dressmaker series when I first started exploring historical romances about three years ago and as much as I enjoyed them (pick them up after you finish everything else on this list), I somehow forgot to follow up on Chase until this year when everyone was reviewing A Duke in Shining Armor. Thanks to some recommendations from Malin, I ended up erratically working my way through some of her older pieces, and I have been obsessed with Mr. Impossible ever since. Maybe it was a matter of timing, but Rupert, the titular Mr. Impossible, is my favorite romantic hero ever. It’s basically if you took the movie The Mummy, and replaced Brendan Fraser’s Rick (who is already awesome) with Thor as portrayed in Thor: Ragnarok. It’s literally the first time I read a romance and thought, “this needs to be a movie, and I have the perfect leading man in mind.” Chase’s specialty seems to be writing hellions and ruffians with hearts of gold, and Rupert is her masterpiece among a stable of contenders. His family has shipped him off to Egypt because they are tired of cleaning up his messes, every single one of his brothers has been told they need to find a wife because his father is tired of supporting them - except Rupert because who would ever agree to marry him? But under all the rough housing, Rupert is much more observant than anyone realizes, loves to tease his serious leading lady, and respects and treasures her intelligence and unconventionality. He is the only one that lets her do as she pleases and lets her be a part of the action while everyone else would prefer for her to wait for news of her missing brother at home. (Jen K)
Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner: I’m pretty sure the prospect of reading a romance novel with anything politics related right now is enough to send some of you over the edge. But rest assured, this is no political firepit. Rose Lerner’s Lively St. Lemeston series is more concerned with the small town interactions and the ridiculousness of the aristocracy’s politicking. In the first book in her wonderful series - which also may be my favourite romance thing ever - Phoebe Sparks finds herself on the receiving end of unsolicited matchmaking. As the widow of a former newspaperman, she has the ability to bestow voters’ rights on her next husband but can’t actually vote herself. This makes her a hot commodity for both the Whigs and the Tories, who send people out to find her a husband on the right side of the aisle for the election. Nicholas Dymond, an earl recovering from war injuries, is sent to help his brother win the election by any means necessary. I could geek out about this book all day. I love how it shows Nicholas struggling to acclimate to civilian life following the psychological pressures of war. I love how Phoebe asserts herself while every man around her tries to meddle in her life (and she’s a genuine plus size heroine in a historical romance!) I love how it’s a Regency story more concerned with the middle-classes than the aristocracy. These are more slow burns than full-on passion but they hit so many buttons for me across the series (the sequel, True Pretenses, is basically the Rian Johnson movie, The Brothers Bloom, but as historical romance). (Kayleigh)
The Wallflowers Series by Lisa Kleypas (Secrets of a Summer Night, It Happened One Autumn, The Devil in Winter, Scandal in Spring): The Wallflowers series focuses on the passed over debutantes of their season: Annabelle, Evie, Lillian, and Daisy. Our four heroines are young women out in society who bond over their mutual rejection by the eligible men they are surrounded by. After spending time on the side lines of many a ballroom, they decide to make friends with the women next to them and work together to find suitable husbands. The series contains two classics of the genre (Secrets of a Summer Night and The Devil in Winter). I enjoy that Kleypas writes with more historical accuracy than many of my other favorites and that she sets up romances where each character gets to find the best version of themselves, both leads are sexual equals (maybe not in experience, but in openness and appetite), and secondary characters are developed but do not overtake the plot. And they are very often quite steamy. SOLD. (faintingviolet)
The Duchess War by Courtney Milan: A strangely egalitarian duke is trying to inspire the workers of Leicester to unionize, and opinionated spinster Wilhelmina Pursling (an alias, her real name is Minerva Lane) is blamed for the handbills he’s distributing. She sets out to clear her name and unwittingly wins the hand of the (virgin) duke in the process. Courtney Milan writes wonderful historical novels about clever women who are constantly underestimated and/or undervalued by society and the men who become the first to truly see them and give them the adoration they deserve. The first full novel in The Brothers Sinister series and a very good example of why Courtney Milan is one of the masters of the genre. (Malin)
The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan: Courtney Milan is a favorite of Cannonballers for a reason. She writes smart, feminist romances full of witty banter and lovable characters. This one is my favorite of her historical novels. It features a lady scientist named Violet whose scientific theories are famous, but she herself is not, because she has had to get them out into the world via a man, specifically her friend Sebastian, a notorious rake. She gets to remain respectable (as her scandalous theories would surely ruin her reputation), and gets to have her research, too, as long as he’s willing to continue the charade. Except, of course, eventually that dual identity wears on her, and on him, and on their lifelong friendship. It’s actually one of the more tense relationship dynamics Milan has written, but that makes it all the more satisfying when they do work it all out. (narfna) (Milan is THE BEST -faintingviolet)
The Companion Contract by Solace Ames: This is probably my favourite erotica ever. Amy Mendoza is an American born Japanese-Filipino porn star who has enjoyed her time in the business but has decided to retire before the life becomes too much. She is offered an out when a rock-star asks her to be a sober/sexual companion to their charismatic but troubled leading man as they set off on a reunion tour. The Companion Contract has some incredibly layered character development and a lot to say on issues of consent, desire, identity and relationships. It’s also hot as all hell. A fiery but deeply sensitive read that’s a great primer for how good erotica can be. (Kayleigh)
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Are you looking for a romance read not typically considered in the genre that is also full of magic? Then you want The Night Circus. The basic plot is rather unassuming: there are two magicians who have been competing with each other for longer than either care to remember. They do not face each other head-on; instead they train young magicians to challenge each other. The young magicians are bound to the competition, and unbeknownst to them, only one can survive. The Night Circus chronicles the competition between Celia and Marco as they create an ever more elaborate and intricate circus, Le Cirque des Rêves. The story is set in a world where magic is possible, historic, and is handled so deftly that as a reader I was swept up in it, I was told enough that it all felt plausible, but not so much as to limit my own imagination. This novel is also littered with sumptuous but simultaneously accessible language. The timeline moves fluidly from point to point, and layers in additional characters that initially seem destined to remain on the periphery but become integral to the story of Celia and Marco’s competition, and their love. Ms. Morgenstern created a novel that almost anyone can fall in love with it. (faintingviolet)
The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, but in particular the second book, The Broken Kingdoms: This whole trilogy is worth a look. It’s not as polished as her brilliant (and multi-award-winning) Broken Earth trilogy but it’s still great, and is a good indicator of her talent. My favorite of the three books happens to be the second, which is a little bit heavier on the romance, and what a strange romance it is! The whole trilogy is full of gods and magic and weird, often moving, sex. But this book was just so, so sweet. To say more would be spoilers, but it’s one of my favorite romances, so if you like fantasy and romance combined, this is definitely one to check out. (narfna)
Uprooted and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik: Both of these are loose retellings of fairy-tales. Uprooted is Beauty and the Beast, where the beast is a scary wizard called the Dragon, who takes young girls into his tower for years at a time; Spinning SIlver is a reverse Rumpelstiltskin, where the Rumpelstiltskin character is a young woman and a Jewish moneylender. But they mostly use the original tales as jumping off points for lush, Slavic-inspired worldbuilding and fantastic atmosphere. Her lady characters are great, her villains are incredibly creepy, and both books have an abundance of things to swoon over. (narfna)
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