Most people who know me know I read romance—and they also know I’m not ashamed of it. (This…comes up a lot. Why would I be ashamed of the books I like?) And like any enthusiast, I often try to convert amenable friends to my promiscuous romance-reading lifestyle. I have a shortlist of accessible authors in my back pocket, whose books bridge the gap for fans of mainstream lady authors like Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, as well as those whose reading tastes run more toward Stephen King or Michael Connelly. And yeah, I do try to get the ones who’ve only read Stephenie Meyer or E.L. James to open their eyes to the glorious pantheon of genre options. Here are just a few of my go-tos when convincing friends to give romance lit a try:
There’s a reason Nora Roberts has more than 400 million copies of her books in print: her writing is accessible, engrossing, and, to a longtime reader, as comforting as a bowl of soup and a mom-knit blanket. She also doesn’t get enough credit for writing some truly chilling thrillers, but that’s a rant for another day. With a catalog of 209 titles (and counting), it’s tough to know where to start with Roberts. My entry point was her 2002 standalone Three Fates, which tells the story of the Sullivan siblings, descendants of a survivor of the sinking of the Lusitania, who embark on a globetrotting pursuit of three priceless heirlooms. It’s sexy and speedy and includes a makeover scene and a stripper with a heart of gold. It’s basically perfect.
One of my favorite historical writers, Joanna Bourne, is basically the anti-Roberts—she’s published just five books, but each is a gem. (Bourne’s sixth novel is due fall 2014, and I have had to stop myself from marking each day off the calendar like a crazy person.) Her most recent, The Black Hawk, is a decade-spanning love story of emotionally damaged French spy Justine and equally effed up (but dashing—oh, so very dashing!) English spy Hawker as they wrangle their way through the Napoleonic wars. This is the book I whack people over the head with and scream, “READ IT I LOVE IT YOU’LL LOVE IT OH MY GOD JUST READ IT!” My histrionics aside, the precision and beauty of Bourne’s writing is summed up in one spare, perfect paragraph:
She did not think he was truly surprised. Hawker would always know what she was going to do before she did it. They had worked together and against each other for too many years. They knew even the small crevices of each other’s minds.
You cannot hear the noise I am making just thinking about this book. Read it. Please.
Ahem. While I have nothing against a good, traditional Regency drawing room comedy of manners that owes its very marrow to Jane Austen (the ones Claudia Dain writes are intricate little jewel boxes—start with The Courtesan’s Wager, which takes place almost entirely during a single party), sometimes the petty intrigues of the lords and ladies of the ton become tiresome. Courtney Milan’s historicals are largely set during and after the Industrial Revolution, against the backdrop of a society that’s brawling with itself as it moves out of feudalism. Her 2012 novel The Duchess War features a noble hero struggling with what the concept of nobility means in 1863 as he falls for a relentlessly brainy heroine with nothing in the way of family or fortune. Milan writes with a distinctly feminist voice, and she will twist your heart mercilessly—but man, does it feel awesome.
Of course I’m not immune to the paranormal wave that’s swept the romance genre over the past decade, but I prefer my vampires a little more “International Man of Mystery” than “Creepy Virgin Stalker.” Enter Jeaniene Frost’s Halfway to the Grave, about what happens when half-human, half-vampire college student Cat gets tangled up with two-hundred-year-old vampire bounty hunter Bones, whose name is just the tip of the suggestive iceberg. Frost has already spun off her Night Huntress series (the seventh and final book is out in January) with two ancillary characters, but I’ve always loved the way she builds a paranormal world that functions believably within our own. Here there be sexy monsters, but they’re also recognizably human characters who are charmingly easy to fall for yourself.