Gird your loins, booklovers, because I have dived deep into the romance novels this month. And I have for you a compilation of the sweetest, the sexiest, and the smuttiest books I could find!
You may have heard before that romance novels aren’t “real literature,” and to that, I say utter nonsense. Do you know how hard it is to write about two people who love each other in a way that doesn’t make you hate them both? People talk about romcoms being light and fluffy (and I can be guilty of this), but the more I study story craft, the more in awe I am of the ability to write something sweet, potentially heartwarming, sexy and also funny. It’s an art form. To all romance authors out there: I salute you. Keep doing what you’re doing, which is bringing joy to the world!
Here are my takeaways from reading all the romance novels:
- I love spy romances, especially in the middle of a tumultuous war
- There are So. Many. Dukes. And they are all English. I bet you can’t swing your purse in England without hitting a duke.
- I hate whiny rich boys. If you’re going to be rich, you better also be tortured by hideous secrets in your past, or be a duke.
My favourite romance tropes are:
- Enemies to lovers
- Fake dating/forced proximity
- A deal or proposal
I’ve broken the reviews up into categories, such as rom-com or bodice rippers, so you can jump straight to your favourites if you like! I’ve also done a lot of research to find diverse romances, to ensure everybody is included. Love is super-inclusive, so it only makes sense that we all share the romance!
To start things off, I’ll let you know my absolute favourite romance of all time is the sweepiest of sweeping epics. And at the end of the month, I will be sharing with you my top forever of all time romantic novel, the one book that has always hit me in the heart and in the guts every time I read it. Make sure to sign up for my newsletter in order to get this exclusive book review!
Sweeping Epic Romance
These are my favourite because they are big: they take on big concepts, big eras, big stretches of time, and big love! I will never not want to read something that can be described as EPIC
The Time Traveller’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
Oh god, this story destroyed me. I am hopelessly in love with Henry, an adventurous librarian with a quirk: he is often, completely out of his control, pulled from this time into others. This isn’t a comedy where he has adventures in different eras – it is painful and horrifying, when he wakes up in another time, naked and alone and having to figure out how to provide for himself, because he could be there for minutes, or days, or months.
The only stability in his life is that he is constantly pulled towards Clare. She knew him as a kind man who would meet her in the garden when she was younger, because of course their love story was playing out in different chronologies. Both of their lives are entirely wrapped up around each other, with secrets being revealed to each other as they go. Normalcy is impossible, and yet they try for it: careers and children and the whole lot.
There is a pervasive thread of dread that ribbons through the story, as something horrible happened at a certain time, but it’s not until the end we realize how horrific. And I was left an utter mess, sobbing for hours. My god, good stuff here. An absolute favourite of mine.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid
One of the most delicious books I’ve ever read. This at the very heart of it is a book entirely about gossip. Evelyn Hugo reads like the most lascivious celebrity gossip scoop ever recorded, and that is of course the whole point. The titular Evelyn Hugo is the most famous, most mysterious celebrity icon of the century (the obvious comparison is Elizabeth Taylor), and she has decided to give away her entire story, showing the world everything that she was.
Evelyn is notorious for her seven husbands but is it the marriage no one knows about that defines her life. This is a book about how gossip can shape stories and lives. Evelyn’s mastery of gossip allowed her to hide in plain sight her whole life. And it shows how easily an audience will accept that which it is given … especially if it falls into their societal norms. Nobody believed the life Evelyn actually lived because it did not correspond with the story she had created for the public, nor was it what they wanted to believe.
It is romantic, and about what actually makes a life worth living. While the book is entirely entertaining, I believe it is also a very important read.
Oh, the bodice ripper. Usually with a page inside of two shirtless lovers wrapped in a passionate embrace. These books can be so cheesy, and yet, there’s just something about them. It’s like eating candy … it’s gone too soon and you immediately want some more!
Mystique, by Amanda Quick
I LOVED Amanda Quick when I was young. My older cousin told me about her, and most of my junior high consisted of sneaking Quick novels out of the library under a pile of more “appropriate for my age” books. Yes, I was one of those girls who hid books in her mattress, haha. This is very typical of her books from the 1990s – handsome but tortured knights, headstrong ladies, an arranged marriage or betrothal as well as nefarious danger lurking just behind the scenes. The heroine will virtually always be nearly raped but saved at the last minute, and there is always a “passion that threatens everything they’ve ever known.” What can I say? I’m a child of the 90s!
Wicked Intentions, by Elizabeth Hoyt
Elizabeth Hoyt does a fantastic job of creating a full world of characters in her Maiden Lane series, of which Wicked Intentions is the first. It was published in 2010 and you can see a big difference in styles, as well as feminism, over the ensuing years. Temperance Dews runs a foundling home for children, they will soon all be put out on the streets. She accepts a bargain with the nefarious Lord Caire to help him stalk a murderer in the poor streets of London, in exchange for his help in finding a patron for her home. Dark passion ensues. (Psst: “dark passion” means sex)
Once a Rebel, by Mary Jo Putney
Mary Jo Putney was another illicit author I used to smuggle into the house. I adored her Fallen Angels series, Regency romances that centred around life in England after the Napoleonic wars. More classics from the ’90s! But those are impossible to find. She has much more recent series out, like the Rogues Redeemed, coming out in the mid-2010s. Once a Rebel is set in war-torn America, during the War of 1812, which you just don’t see very much. There are similar themes in these of sacrifices made during war, redemption, and of course lots and lots of sex. I mean dark passion.
The Secrets of a Scoundrel, by Gaelen Foley
Gaelen Foley is a new author for me, and she has written tons of juicy romance novels. I am a sucker for series with repeating characters, and The Secrets of a Scoundrel is the last in the Inferno Club series – about men who are invariably handsome, debauched, but also tender and sensitive and ripe for love on the inside! The story begins when a dangerous warrior, languishing in a Scottish dungeon, accepts a proposition from a mysterious young woman. Dark passion ensues, as well as some world-saving on the side!
As far as I could tell from my research, a historical romance differs from a bodice ripper based on the cover: if there is a barechested man, or a woman in a frilly dress spilling out of her dress, you’ve probably got yourself a bodice ripper. Here are some historical romances, and I tried to find some diverse eras. It can’t all be Regency England! (or can it …)
The Duke & I (Bridgerton), by Julia Quinn
Who doesn’t know Bridgerton? The historical fiction romance series turned into runaway hit Netflix series. The first season of Bridgerton was the most-watched TV show of all time. If that doesn’t convince you that romance is mainstream, I have no idea what will.
Daphne Bridgerton needs to increase her prospects for an auspicious marriage, while Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, is in need of a foil to push off all the mothers trying to push their daughters on him. They enter into a pretend courtship in a deal that should benefit them both. But they can’t count on the dangerous urges of their hearts …
In an interesting twist on our collective perception of consent, there is a tricky issue of consent in the plot. I read that Quinn noted when her book came out in 2000, nobody batted an eyelash about it. But in the 2020s, there was a lot of consternation. It makes me happy how society is heading in the right direction.
I love “deal” tropes. Two mismatched people seeking entirely different things cold-heartedly enter into a mutually beneficial deal. But as I know from reading a ton of romance, proximity can stir things up. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, as well as watch the next season!
Tight Rope, by Amanda Quick
As mentioned before, I love Amanda Quick’s chest-baring medieval romances, but she has continued to write through the decades and I was delighted to see she has many new novels I’ve never read before.
Tight Rope is set early 20th century, and follows a former trapeze artist turned bed and breakfast owner Amalie Vaughn. Only there’s a curse on the villa she purchased and people are turning up dead. There’s also some interesting plot twists revolving around early robotics and ciphering machines – quasi steampunk! Enter Matthias Jones, an investigator with ties to the criminal underworld. Amelie and Matthias dance around each other, trying to figure out if the attraction between them can lead to trust.
How can you turn away from a concept like that? Everything about this book is delightful, including this gorgeous cover.
Jewels, by Danielle Steel
I was obsessed with this book when I was young. It is a generational epic, following Sarah Whitfield, an American divorcee utterly ruined in the 1930s. That is, until she meets the Duke of Whitfield on a trip to Europe and they fall passionately in love.
The story continues as they buy a chateau in France and suffer all the horrors of occupied Europe during WWII. Sarah begins to buy jewelry from families in desperate need of money or tickets out of the continent, and her collection of jewels grows into something substantial. Through it all Sarah is steadfast, always waiting for her beloved husband to return to her. Their children grow up and marry, each of them with their own issues, as the family business in jewels takes off in Europe and further abroad.
Spanning decades, the novel is so delightfully over the top and unabashedly glamourous, it’s like the perfect book from the ’80s, although it was published in 1992. Another one I needed to hide under my mattress!
Diverse Historical Romance
Bridgerton, the TV series, did an awesome thing where it incorporated people of colour into the Regency romance era, without blinking an eye. This needs to happen more! I’ve sought out historical romances with main characters of colour.
Tempest, by Beverly Jenkins
A sizzling Old West romance based around an arranged marriage. I’m not always into the “forced marriage” trope, but I liked this concept. I like even more than tempestuous Regan Carmichael greets her soon-to-husband Colton Lee with a bullet. Obviously the two of them are going to get along. And widower Colton, who only ordered a bride to have someone to take care of his daughter, finds himself starting to feel again.
An Unconditional Freedom, by Alyssa Cole
I adore the concept of this book! After being sold into slavery, Daniel Cumberland is freed by a man he hates, and takes all of his rage to spy for the Loyal League during the American civil war to help take down the Confederacy. And Janeta Sanchez is extorted to enter into the Loyal League as a double agent for the Confederacy, in order to save her father’s life. I am a SUCKER for spy romances. After reading all the romances, I think it’s one of my favourites. This book can be graphic about the subject matter at hand (war and slavery), but it’s nicely paced and exciting.
A Duke, The Lady and A Baby, by Vanessa Riley
The first in Vanessa Riley’s Rogues and Remarkable Women series, A Duke follows Patience Jordans, an heiress in the West Indies who loses everything when her husband kills himself … including her newborn son Lionel. She risks her life to stay close to him, and manages to score the position as her own son’s nanny, although his new guardian has no idea who Patience is. Busick Strathmore (who is a duke, obviously) has been given guardianship of his cousin’s son, but finds himself intrigued by the passion of the new nanny. Love this concept, though I hate even the temporary heartache at the thought of having one’s child taken away!
I will say it here and I will say it again: Romantic Comedies are some of the most brilliant writing you are going to find on the shelves. Don’t believe me? Try writing one. Reading them makes people genuinely happy. I love putting down a book after the last page with a silly smile on my face.
The Flatshare, by Beth O’Leary
This has become my standard when it comes to romantic comedies. Beth O’Leary’s take on two mismatched souls finding each other while sharing a bed (but never meeting each other) is pitch-perfect.
The concept is adorable: Tiffy, in a tight spot personally and financially, takes up Leon’s offer to share his flat with him, and his bed, on the condition they never meet. Leon works night shifts, so only asks that Tiffy is not there from 9am to 6pm. They slowly begin to get to know each other through notes and leftovers. I love everything about this concept. And it absolutely held up the whole way along. This is a five-star romcom for me!
The Road Trip, by Beth O’Leary
Do I have a Beth O’Leary problem? Why I believe I do. Unfortunately, The Road Trip was not quite as perfect as The Flatshare, largely because I did not love the male main character. Whiny rich boys are not my thing. No, I don’t think you’re misunderstood, I think you’re an asshole. Oops, was that too much?
I did like how the story flipped from how Addie and Dylan initially met and the intensity of falling in love, with the utter disaster that is the road trip that shoved them back together again in a mini with a group of randoms on their way to a wedding. There is build-up to a big awful thing that broke up Addie and Dylan, and it was indeed pretty awful. Only, I wouldn’t have forgiven Dylan if I were Addie, and instead would have gone off with my awesome self to find someone better. Oh, but her sex-loving sister was massively entertaining, the star of the book really.
The Soulmate Equation, by Christina Lauren
Jess Davis is a single mother statistician with zero desire to date – too much of a mess and heartache, and she wants to keep her daughter safe from all of that. But a new DNA-based matchmaking company swears it can predict your soulmate through your genes.
Jess likes the certainty of numbers and tries it out. She does not love the answer: she is 98% genetically proven to be perfect for the company’s founder, Dr. River Peña, a man she knows and hates. But she could use the cash when the company offers to pay her to “date” River publicly. And if you know anything about the combination of enemies to lovers and forced proximity tropes … sparks are going to fly!
Evvie Drake Starts Over, by Linda Holmes
Evvie Drake Starts Over was not only delightful, it was relatable. Because there are some true moments of having to really pull yourself out of your own shit and become a stronger person. And while the details may differ, everyone has been in a position when they need to start things over.
Evvie Drake is a widow. Ever since her husband dies, she has been a recluse. And nobody knows the real reason why. It takes former pro pitcher Dean Tenney to rent out a room in her house to shake her out of her stupor.
The romance was sweet and I was rooting for Evvie and Dean the whole time. This is the kind of book you put down with a sigh of satisfaction: yes! That was everything I needed it to be.
Diverse Romantic Comedies
As with Historical Romances, I wanted to put a spotlight on romcoms that focused on characters who were not: White; Straight; and Neurotypical. I wasn’t able to get my hands on Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue, but I want to shout that out as a fantastically sweet and sexy LGBTQ+ romcom!
The Wedding Party, by Jasmine Guillory
I loved Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date, so obviously I wanted to read the sequel. After Alexa and Drew’s adorable cute meet on an elevator, they are now tying the knot. Alexa’s best friends Maddie and Theo are both her best friends and are sharing bridal responsibilities. And also they hate each other. Enemies to lovers! I love this trope. Things get steamy as they try to deny their attraction to each other.
Take A Hint, Dani Brown, by Talia Hibbert
The second in The Brown Sisters Series, this romcom follows Ph.D. student Dani as she’s looking for success in her career and the occasion lay to keep her sane. But the universe has other plans for her. She is “rescued” from a fire drill by dreamy ex-rugby player security guard Zaf, and the moment goes viral. She agrees to fake date him in order to drum up publicity for his children’s charity and secretly wants to get him into the sack. (Fake dating! Another great trope!)
Her plans to seduce Zaf are thrown into disarray by his plans to make her fall in love with him. These books are positively charming, perfect reads to make you smile.
The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang
Another sequel! I have been going around reading the second book in all these inclusive romcoms I’ve already fallen in love with. As a follow-up to The Kiss Quotient (another spectacular romcom, definitely read that too!), Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test follows Khai Diep, who believes he has no feelings. In fact, his autism makes it so that he processes feelings differently than others, but he needs to meet Esme Tran to help him figure it out.
Esme grew up in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, and an arranged marriage in America sounds like a dream come true to her family. Only she has a limited time to seduce Khai while falling in love with him at the same time.
The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman believes he is wired differently, and has difficulty in social situations. He never seems to quite grasp what is needed of him and believes that romance is something that isn’t for him. But the professor of genetics is convinced there is a person for everyone and engages in the Wife Project, in an attempt to analytically find an appropriate wife for him.
He assumes he seeks someone logical like him, and when Rosie drops into his life – crass, brash, swearing, smoking, fiercely intelligent Rosie – he couldn’t imagine a worse person for him. But together they begin to realize that opposites quite certainly can attract.
This book was sweet and funny. It has a sequel too! I’m probably going to have to go out and read it.
The word DUKE has lost all meaning, but man did I have fun reading all the romances. You must have a favourite – tell me what it is so I can run right out and read it. Whichever one I like the most earns a shoutout!