125 Best Romance Books of All Time, With Picks From Bestselling Authors and Indie Booksellers

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Some say a romance novel must end with the lovers embracing as fireworks go off behind them. A Guaranteed Happy Ending. Others say a good cry can be very romantic too. Isn’t the film Casablanca romantic, even though Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman go their separate ways? At Parade, we enjoy them all; if it makes you swoon, it’s a romance.

We spoke to best-selling authors—everyone from Jojo Moyes to Nicholas Sparks to Julia Quinn to Taylor Jenkins Reid—and passionate people at indie bookstores all over the country to create this list. Few genres have expanded so much in recent decades and fewer still have adherents who lift each other up so readily. You’ll find plenty of familiar classics. You’ll also find a lot of recent titles, not to mention love that comes in every imaginable form. And what could be more romantic than that; a vision of romance that includes everyone? Enjoy, but bring a hanky. 

Related: 222 Best Books of All Time, With Personal Picks from Authors

125 Best Romance Books of All Time

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A Caribbean Heiress in Paris by Adriana Herrera

“Too often, when we talk about the best books of a genre, we fill the lists with books from the early years,” says author Sarah MacLean (Brazen and the Beast, also on this list). “But romance moves so quickly that it's impossible to talk about the best of our genre without talking about much more recent titles; titles that are showcasing how big and bold and meaningful the genre can be. For me, Adriana Herrera's A Caribbean Heiress in Paris is one of those books,” says MacLean, whose latest is Knockout ($9.99; Avon). “The first in her Las Leonas series, featuring a group of Dominican heiresses arrived in Belle Epoch Paris for the 1890 World's Fair to take Europe by storm, the book is everything a historical romance should be: full of bold characters, brilliant world-building, deeply sexy moments and a peek at the history they don't teach you in school. This is Herrera's debut historical romance, and one that will be read for years to come.”

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The Perils of Pleasure by Julie Anne Long

"’At the fifth guard, stumble and fall.’ So whispers Madeleine Greenway to Colin Eversea moments before she saves him from the gallows...in the very first chapter of one of my very favorite books,” says Julia Quinn, whose Bridgerton novel The Duke and I is also on this list. “I can't count the number of times I've read a line in one of Julie Anne Long's historical romances and thought, ‘I wish I'd written that!’” says Quinn, whose latest is Queen Charlotte ($30; Avon), co-written with TV legend Shonda Rhimes. “The Perils of Pleasure, the first in her acclaimed Pennyroyal Green series, grabs the reader on the very first page and doesn't let go. It's all wit and sparkle, with a dash of intrigue and dollop of passion. Bridgerton fans will love it!”

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Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

A scandalous sensation when it was first published in 1944, Forever Amber was banned in 14 U.S. states and the country of Australia, condemned by the Catholic Church for indecency and one critic rather helpfully noted every passage that offended them. Not surprisingly, it was also among the best-selling novels of the decade. One more thing: it was great fun. Just ask author Robyn Carr, whose Virgin River is also on this list. She happily details the novel’s plot. “Amber St Clare is left penniless and pregnant in the English countryside right at the time Charles Stuart (Charles II) returns from exile to restore the monarchy to the throne, and she manages to fight, plot and scheme her way to the highest level of nobility,” says Carr, author of A Family Affair ($17.99; MIRA) and The Friendship Club ($28.99; MIRA, due out in January). “The pageantry and scale of this historical melodrama so captivated me that my first published novel employed the Restoration setting and King Charles as the backdrop. From highwaymen and thieves to kings and queens, this ambitious romance is a beautiful fanciful romp through history. And a lusty romp it is!”

Related: 75 Quotes About Writing To Inspire Your Creativity

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Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez is a giant of literature, so it’s no surprise you’ll find One Hundred Years of Solitude on our list of Parade’s 222 Best Books of All Time. We might just as easily have picked Love In The Time Of Cholera, a work equally celebrated. Author Jojo Moyes, whose novel Me Before You is also on this list, quickly named it as one of the great Romance novels of all time. “Love In The Time Of Cholera is a beautifully written, sad, slyly funny and humane take on what it means to love—sometimes obsessively—for a lifetime,” says Moyes, whose latest work is Someone Else’s Shoes ($29; Pamela Dorman Books). “The relationship between Florentino and Fermina shows that the destabilizing, euphoric and sometimes ridiculous business of love doesn’t alter no matter how old you are.”

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Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Fleetwood Mac looms large over popular culture and the band’s entangled romantic pairings inspired other artists to explore the delicious dramatic possibilities. The Off Broadway hit show Stereophonic at Playwrights Horizons depicts the recording of a Rumours-like masterpiece. Amazon Prime delivered the engrossing miniseries Daisy Jones & The Six about a Mac-ish rock band in the 1970s. And that was based on the 2019 novel you must read now. “Taylor Jenkins Reid consistently raises the bar by breaking the mold of conventional novel writing and there is no more perfect example than Daisy Jones & the Six,” says Curran Sentilles, resident dramatist at South Main Book Company of Salisbury, NC. Most impressive is the clever way the novel is structured like an oral history. “She paints a portrait of three-dimensional characters entirely through dialogue in the interview style,” says Sentilles. “Not only individually humanizing each character through their own points of view, but line by line illuminating a wider story that reveals itself to be a masterpiece. One in which Reid proves that in life, love, and the ‘70s culture of rock and roll, as Daisy Jones herself says, ‘It’s very vulnerable, being an artist.’”

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Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale

Acclaimed author Diana Gabaldon (Outlander, also on this list) immediately chose to celebrate this gem that celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. “Wonderfully individual characters, vividly written, an unusual and excellent plot, and one of the most ambitiously written novels I've seen,” says Gabaldon, author most recently of Go Tell The Bees That I Am Gone ($22; Bantam). “By that, I mean that Kinsale does things with technique that most writers wouldn't even think of trying, and pulls them off brilliantly. She has a deft and delicate touch with historical detail, too, but the greatest strength of this book is—reasonably enough—the love story between a rakish aristocrat who's been felled during a duel—by a stroke, rather than a sword (thus losing his power of speech)—and a quiet Quaker mathematician. So nice to have a genuine heroine who is mistress of herself and has both dignity and modesty as well as intelligence and self-respect, and thus doesn't need to resort to ass-kicking in order to demonstrate her strength. The Duke's blend of arrogance, intelligence and vulnerability is captivating, and so is their blossoming love affair. People who read romance novels want a deep emotional engagement, and this is IT.”

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

A Gothic tale. A haunted marriage. A powerful man and a weaker woman. It’s a recipe for a psychological melodrama (loaded word, that!) and a recipe for critical disdain. An immediate best-seller, Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece is now acclaimed as a classic, but it was a long time coming, despite an Oscar-winning film adaptation and one of the great opening lines of all time. Author S.J. Watson—whose most recent novel is Final Cut ($16.99; Harper) appreciates how bold it is in conception and chose it for Parade’s 110 Best Crime, Thriller and Suspense Novels of All Time. "I love the fact that Rebecca—the title character!—exists only as an absence at the heart of the book,” says Watson, “and also the fact that the narrator herself is unnamed throughout.” Its greatest accomplishment may be the fact that it’s now so clearly seen as also belonging to the thriller/suspense genre and not just a “woman’s novel.” While he appreciates the plotting, Watson points out that it’s “also an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who don’t, and the secrets told to preserve it. This book forever altered my perception of what crime novels could be.” We’d add it did the same for the romance genre.

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Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

This debut novel from Lara Elena Donnelly wowed everyone by crossing fantasy with a vaguely Weimar-era European city and a piercing romance while fascism rears its ugly head. In the musical Cabaret, they sang “Tomorrow belongs to me.” Not “us.” Not “you and me.” Just “me.” So, a little unnerving. That sense of unease pervades Amberlough, a work so rich you could get dizzy from all the comparisons reviewers make between it and other writers, including John Le Carré, Evelyn Waugh, David Bowie, Sarah Waters, James Bond, Oscar Wilde, China Mieville and even Shakespeare in Love. Sold yet? In this alternate world, an emcee at a nightclub is also a smuggler and he’s in love with Cyril, a spy who tries to ignore the fact that his lover is a criminal and they’re bound to the burlesque dancer Cordelia. The three of them aren’t going to beat the baddies; they’re just trying to survive. One more comparison: Casablanca. Now are you sold? You should be.

Related: ‘Sweet Magnolias’ Books in Order: How To Read The Whole Series That Inspired The Hit Netflix Show

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Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins

A recent peak for romance legend Beverly Jenkins, Forbidden features all her trademarks. It’s set in the Old West and focuses on Rhine Fontaine, a handsome man passing for white in Nevada. Fontaine is determined to keep his secret so he can build a future and thwart the prejudices that would normally block him at every turn. Nothing will distract Fontaine from this goal. Not even the gorgeous woman he rescues, who is just as determined to stick to her plan. Eddy Carmichael will use her gift for cooking to save up money and head to California and a new life that does not include the admittedly handsome, appealing and sexy Fontaine. Jenkins weaves in history and background detail with ease, grounding the story in a real world that’s far more complicated and interesting than most genre books ever attempt. And that makes her stories all the more gripping. 

“Beverly Jenkins is a titan of historical romance novels,” says Leah Koch, owner of The Ripped Bodice bookstore in Los Angeles. “Her contributions to the genre cannot possibly be enumerated. Forbidden is Jenkins at the height of her skill, weaving untold history with gorgeous romance and heart-stopping adventure. Jenkins transcends generations and no customer has ever regretted picking up her work.” Indeed, Jenkins is successful in many genres, but historical romances are where she flourishes, from stories about high class hotels for people of color to the challenges facing professional doctors long ago to the many Black cowboys of the Old West. Her novels are told with verve and accuracy, complete with notes and bibliographies at the end for those who want to explore the history further. Whoever imagined romance novels with a bibliography? Beverly Jenkins.

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It’s Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake by Claire Christian

If you don’t love yourself, nobody else may either. That’s the lesson learned by big-boned, bisexual Noni Blake, a very confident woman who decides to put herself first for a change. That leads to a lot of one night stands. But it also leads to the realization that Noni can indeed have it all, happily. “It may have been that I found this book at the perfect time in my healing work,” says RC Collman of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But “it's still one of the best romance novels written. Breaking the mold among archetypal romance, Christian offers an unpredictable romantic love, steamy smut, and most importantly, self-love. You'll be smitten with Noni Blake's adventures in pleasure and proud of her growth throughout it.”

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Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller

Self-publishing started long before Amazon, you know. One great example is Patience & Sarah, a 1969 novel by Isabel Miller. It’s about two women falling in love in the early 1800s who bravely determine to make a life for themselves somewhere far away from home. Originally self-published as A Place For Us, it was “officially” published in 1971, slowly found its audience and became the first novel to win a Stonewall Book Award. The course of true love does not run smooth in this story: the two women are outed; Patience denies her love; Sarah cuts her hair, dresses as a man and runs off; Sarah fends off assault and offers of love again and again (whether dressed as a boy or a lower class woman) until the two are reunited and Patience finds the courage Sarah never lacked. It’s a word-of-mouth favorite and inspired the likes of Sarah Waters (on this list with Fingersmith), who appropriately enough was given a copy by a girlfriend when she was just 22 years old. An opera was staged at Lincoln Center in 1998 but we’re still waiting for a film version.

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The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Perhaps the sweetest romance is one that can’t last; if nothing else, a passion cut short will always be perfect. Maybe that helps explain the enduring appeal of the tragical romance from Romeo & Juliet to Erich Segal’s Love Story to this blockbuster novel by John Green. Two young people marked by fears of an early death develop a friendship…and then more. It’s beautiful, it’s inherently sad, it’s brave, it’s just…life. And the novel contains the most giddily inappropriate setting imaginable for a first kiss. (Read it!) The Fault in Our Stars proved overwhelmingly successful, leading Green to use his ever-growing fame for numerous awesome projects to support his young adult fans, as well as highlight issues close to his heart. So he’s admirable as well as talented.

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The Prince of Broadway by Joanna Shupe

“The very best historical romance spares no expense,” says Sarah MacLean (Knockout; $9.99, Avon). “The worlds are lush, the characters are electric, the stories are rollicking. On a scale of one to ten, historicals should be an eleven. Joanna Shupe's The Prince of Broadway is virtually unmatched as a best of recent romance. The second in her Uptown Girls series, featuring three sisters in Gilded Age New York, The Prince of Broadway is the story of Florence Greene, a wealthy young woman with plans to open a women-only casino in New York City. But heiresses can't just open casinos...they need guidance, and that guidance comes in the form of ruthless casino owner Clayton Madden, who wants revenge on Florence's father. Revenge is a perfect romance plot because it's so emotional, and Shupe proves herself one of the best writers of the genre with ease here. Clayton and Florence are an incendiary, unforgettable match and the book delivers on every level.”

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It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover

Yes, escapism is a huge draw for romance readers. You toss aside your everyday concerns, imagine yourself as the new governess or the virginal princess or the gorgeous yet brilliant and somehow single new surgeon who always put work ahead of relationships…until now. Like any great book, a great romance can offer wish fulfillment. But just as powerful is the desire to see yourself. That’s why we’ve witnessed an explosion of romances that come in all shapes and sizes and flavors imaginable. And that’s why facing up to and overcoming domestic abuse can become the beating heart of one of the most popular romance novels in years. Sometimes, real life, real problems and a real person pushing themselves to demand what they deserve is exactly what you need. And that’s why Colleen Hoover is dominating the bestseller list like a woman on a mission. Because she is.

Related: 20 Enlightening Spiritual Books for When You're Searching for Hope and Strength

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Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin

Jeannie Lin's debut took historical romance readers to a place they had never been before—8th century China and the Tang Dynasty,” says Steve Ammidown, a Romance historian and archivist well-known throughout the romance community. In the 700s CE, Princess Ai Li flees for her life before her wedding day. All she has to defend herself are her delicate butterfly swords and her honor. She naively enlists a warrior named Ryam to protect her, not knowing he’s as honorable as her. Ryam takes her trust as a sacred pledge, but for the first time must wrestle with his own desire for this vulnerable, proud young woman. “It's an irresistible swirl of a bad-ass heroine, sword fighting, palace intrigue, and sensuality that you can't help but fall in love with. In an era when Regency romance dominates, Lin's Tang Dynasty books are a fantastic reminder that love has been a part of life for everyone, in every time period.”

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Mrs. Miracle by Debbie Macomber

Put down your knitting needles (for a moment) and think: where should someone start with Debbie Macomber? Her gentle, sweet romances and her personal story of triumphing over dyslexia (and an initially resistant publishing industry) are an inspiration for fans and fellow writers. So should you send people to her Cedar Cove series or Blossom Street or the Heart of Texas? Well, nothing captures Macomber better than her Christmas novels, an almost annual tradition since 1986. And one of the most delightful is Mrs. Miracle. It stars Mrs. Merkle AKA Mrs. Miracle, one of those perfect nannies everyone needs but rarely finds. It was turned into one of Hallmark’s most popular seasonal movies ever. Macomber must love that time of year, too: her newest release is the holiday novella Jack Frost ($12.99; Debbie Macomber, Inc.)

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Frederica by Georgette Heyer

J.R.R. Tolkein established the modern fantasy, a genre almost entirely indebted to him for its existence. Few can make a similar claim about pioneering a new category of fiction. But Georgette Heyer can. She wrote many thrillers, often one a year, and they deserve your attention. But she’s widely recognized as creating the modern historical romance and more specifically the Regency romance. Jane Austen wrote Regency romances as a matter of course; for her, they were contemporary novels. One hundred years later, Heyer would bring a scholar’s passion for accuracy to works set in that period. By the end of her life, Heyer owned a reference library exceeding 1000 titles about the era, along with any info she could find on the history of snuff boxes, the cost of candles in a particular year and so on. What’s truly exciting is that her novels like Frederica are so much fun. 

“I discovered Frederica in middle school, shocked and thrilled by the blatantly un-heroic hero who boasted of never being of use to anyone,” says Eloisa James, author most recently of Not That Duke ($9.99; Avon). “I longed to wittily squash 8th grade boys the way Frederica did the marquess. Heyer’s mischievous creativity in flipping genre tropes set a model that I’ve tried to follow ever since—in life and fiction.”

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Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

At this point in our list, you shouldn’t blink an eye about any aspect of this novel. Once upon a time, a romance about a plus-sized woman would be bold enough to rock the genre. Here we have a seemingly confident woman of color living with the chronic pain of fibromyalgia while developing an interracial relationship with a red-headed neighbor/artist with his own issues. But this checklist of facts isn’t the point, any more than Chloe Brown’s list of ways to shake up her life is the point. (Though yes, riding a motorcycle and traveling the world with nothing but hand luggage are worthy goals.) Author Talia Hibbert brings these characters to life in a charming tale where each aspect of their nature and lives informs but doesn’t define or limit them. “Reading this novel feels like laughing with your best friend while drinking a warm cup of tea,” says Hannah Kerbs, bookseller at Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee and co-host of its Between The Covers romance book club. “Chloe and Red have an irresistibly adorable dynamic, and Hibbert’s witty charm makes this one a joy to read again and again. Pro tip: Adjoa Andoh does a positively stellar job narrating the audiobook!”

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Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Just one more book. That’s the exciting and dire possibility as author Diana Gabaldon works on the tenth—and possibly last—novel in the Outlander series, works that changed her life and proved yet again just how big a romance novel can become in popular culture. The story of Claire, a nurse who time travels back to Scotland in the 1700s and falls hard for the dashing Jamie, Outlander won the RITA Award for Best Romance of 1991. And here we are more than 30 years later, with an ongoing TV series, a prequel TV series on the way, a spin-off book series featuring Lord John Grey, a potential musical, a graphic novel, short stories, novellas and most importantly of all, eight more books. Because it all begins with the books. Gabaldon has won a RITA, a Quill Award for Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror and been nominated for the mystery honor of an Edgar Award for a Lord John novella. (That was for an anthology edited by George R.R. Martin, who knows something about the pressures of sticking the landing when it comes to a beloved series.) And it all happened because Gabaldon was a professor with a successful career at Arizona State University who decided to write a novel “just for fun.”

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Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue is the perfect gateway book into the romance genre,” says Kira Apple, bookseller at Charis Books & More of Decatur, Georgia. The story of the son of the first female President of the United States falling in love with a British prince was an immediate bestseller and turned author Casey McQuiston into a superstar. “It shines a rainbow light on everything a romance can be: personal, complex, endearing, exciting, and fun. Casey McQuiston's writing is laugh-out-loud funny, and their story features charming, flawed characters who tug at your heartstrings. McQuiston has an eye for what makes people people and the interests and idiosyncrasies that draw them together. Above all, RWRB is unabashedly, unapologetically queer: a celebration of community, the power of representation, and of finding and being true to yourself.”

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High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

“If you love romantic comedies as much as you love music, it’s legally required to read High Fidelity, says author Sidney Karger, whose debut novel is Best Men ($17; Berkeley). “Set in the old timey days of mix tapes and VCR players (remember those?), Nick Hornby’s debut novel is equally giggle-inducing and heart-melting. Struggling record shop owner Rob Fleming is an emotionally immature music snob who learns to become a slightly less emotionally immature music snob, while figuring out if he deserves a second chance with ex-girlfriend Laura, the one who got away. The romantically-challenged Rob, who obsessively makes top five lists of his ex-girlfriends and favorite songs, might find true happiness in knowing he’s finally landed his very own spot on this list of romance books.”

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Restoree by Anne McCaffrey

You never forget your first Romance. For author Jayne Ann Krentz (Sweet Starfire, on this list) that book was… science fiction. In fact, it was the debut novel of Anne McCaffrey, who went on to fame as the fantasy author of the Pern series. In Restoree, McCaffrey took a swipe at all the helpless damsels in distress found in sci-fi. Helpless? Not this time; not in her book. “A smart, gutsy Earth woman is kidnapped by evil extraterrestrials,” remembers Krentz, whose latest novel as Amanda Quick is The Bride Wore White ($28; Berkeley) and whose latest as Jayne Ann Krentz is The Night Island ($29; Berkeley, out Jan 9). “She wakes up on a different planet with no memory of how she got there. She saves hero, the two have adventures, fall in love and defeat bad guys. I discovered this book when I was a teenager and never looked back. It’s the novel that made me want to read more romance and, eventually, write it. Thank you, Anne McCaffrey!”

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Virgin River by Robyn Carr

Writing about kind, nice people may be one of the hardest challenges an author can face. Robyn Carr makes it look easy with Virgin River, the launch of a book series that led to a Netflix TV show already renewed for a sixth season. In it, Melinda is an LA nurse practitioner/midwife who unexpectedly finds herself mourning a lost love and trapped in a town of 600 people far, far away from a Starbucks or any other signs of life. Except for Jack, the ex-Marine who runs the local bar/food joint and is as manly but sensitive as any romance reader might hope for. This isn’t a Northern Exposure-style romance, with Mel out of sync with the locals. She’s warm and generous, Jack is kind and patient and so is most everyone else. While the local doc may be crusty and unwilling to admit he could use Mel’s help, you know he’s not so bad deep down. But for all that generosity of spirit, it’s never dull or uninteresting at Virgin River. No wonder Mel stayed and readers have returned for 20+ more tales.

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Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Which Brontë sister is your favorite? This question can spark a knock-down drag out fight. Some of us, like perhaps Kate Bush, choose Emily Brontë and her only novel, the romantic classic Wuthering Heights. Savannah LeGate of Half Price Books Belle Meade in Nashville heartily agrees. “The novel, to be read with extreme caution, is about the complicated relationships revolving around the Earnshaw and Linton families in Yorkshire,” says bookseller LeGate. “But at its core, it's about the tumultuous relationship between Heathcliff, an orphan, and Catherine Earnshaw, who comes from a wealthy family. Their relationship is incredibly problematic: he’s practically a demon and she’s no better. Still, with lines like ‘Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same’ it's no wonder their intoxicating dynamic was the blueprint for many iconic fictional couples.”

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The Prize by Julie Garwood

The late Julie Garwood is beloved for her contemporary romances with a thriller edge and well-researched historical tales. Garwood endearingly allowed her heroines to be sometimes clumsy and prone to getting lost. But those are quirks, not flaws. Garwood always created heroines who were strong and independent. If they weren’t, Garwood said many times, then they weren’t heroines. That’s surely why she offered an appreciation for Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice for this list; Elizabeth Bennet is nothing if not strong and independent. For almost 40 years, Garwood delighted readers and her early triumph The Prize is as good a place as any to begin. It’s a favorite of author Tessa Bailey, whose latest is Unfortunately Yours ($18.99; Avon). Set during the era of William The Conqueror, it features a proud Saxon woman named Nicholaa, the Norman warrior Royce she chooses as a husband and a classic back and forth as each falls in love with the other but can’t imagine those feelings are reciprocated. Typically, Garwood captures their burgeoning romance in the simple details of their daily life as much as with the dramatic events swirling around them. She will be missed.

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Love and Rockets: Maggie the Mechanic (Locas Book 1) by Jaime Hernandez      Love and Rockets: Heartbreak Soup (Palomar Book 1) by Gilbert Hernandez

For 40 (!) years, Los Bros Hernandez have produced “alternative” comics that helped revolutionize the industry. Along the way, they’ve created two sprawling worlds peopled with vivid characters, crazy storylines and the quotidian challenges of everyday life. Gilbert is best known for the Palomar stories, set in a mythical Latin American country suffused with magic realism (natch) and featuring Heraclio and Carmen, a happy couple at the heart of early storylines. Jaime is best known for the Locas stories set in LA and centered by oft-time lovers Maggie and Hopey. It’s the serialized novel to end all novels; it’s Dickensian, it’s Borgesian and certainly Trollope would be proud. Start with these two collections from the early 1980s. Binge-watching has nothing on the binge-reading you’ll soon be doing.

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The Duke and I: A Bridgerton Novel by Julia Quinn

“The Bridgerton series devotes one book to each of the eight children in a family,” says Amy Diephouse of Schuler Books of Grand Rapids, Michigan. “You know it from the Netflix series, unless you’re a huge fan of Regency romances and read this when it made a stir in 2000. In The Duke And I, the story revolves around Daphne and Simon. She’s a Bridgerton and far too sensible and smart to appeal to the men of her time, who prefer their women more mysterious and less outspoken. She doesn’t care, not really. Simon hates his father and vows never to marry or have children. But society can be so tiresome when matrons are pushing their eligible daughters at you. So they make a pact and pretend to be in love to get everyone off their backs. And of course sparks fly and they fall for each other, though not without complications and confusions and a promise things will go no further. And then they go further. Sometimes a great novel is just great fun.”

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The Kraken King by Meljean Brook

If you’re not ready to dive into romances taking place in every possible time and setting, you’ve come to the wrong list. Steampunk is a flexible genre that often includes a Victorian era setting with the retro-futuristic inventions of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, at least for starters. With a steampunk romance, you get all that plus the heat of potential romance, something neither Wells nor Verne was particularly adept at. So here’s Meljean Brook to add some chemistry by bonding a heroine looking for adventure (rather than just writing about it) to a smuggler dubbed the Kraken King (and not just so readers can make easy jokes in their heads). Linda Bedard is a fan. “I’ve read this at least five times,” says Bedard, the owner of Love Your Shelf bookstore in Bellingham, Massachusetts. “It’s the ultimate steampunk adventure romance with the best book boyfriend ever written.”

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The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

So many love stories are about that first kiss, the passion of the young, the thrilling newness of it all. And yet, love endures and nothing says that better than two people who remain together in their twilight years. Author Nicholas Sparks was inspired to write his first novel by the 60+ year marriage of his wife’s parents. What could be more moving than an elderly man reading the story of his courtship and love to a wife with dementia of some sort who no longer recognizes him? Not much, according to Danielle Johnson of Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. “Based on a real romance, this tender story proves that love overcomes all,” says Johnson. “In the absence of lifetime memories, the emotion of love can bring it all back.” 

The Notebook was an immediate bestseller and launched Sparks onto a career that includes more than 20 novels and eleven movies, including 2004’s The Notebook, which turned Ryan Gosling into a superstar. He’s not done yet: Sparks’ latest novel Dreamland ($18.00; Random House) is out in paperback. And we’re not done with The Notebook. A TV series is in the works and an acclaimed musical adaptation opens on Broadway in February. Bring your tissues. Sparks calls his books “love stories,” not romances, because he doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. But even happy endings can make you cry.

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Phantom Evil: Krewe of Hunters Book 1 by Heather Graham

“When it comes to paranormal romantic suspense, Heather Graham’s Krewe of Hunters is at the top of my list,” says Amy Diephouse of the Schuler Books store located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Equal parts swoon-worthy romance, spine-tingling ghost story, and riveting murder mystery, this series about a secret government unit of investigators with paranormal and psychic abilities is filled with unique historical locations, inventive ghostly hauntings, and death-defying love stories. While some characters do cross over from book to book, each story can be read as a thrilling and romantically satisfying standalone…but I dare you to read just one!”

Related: How to Read All of Kristin Hannah’s Books in Order—Including the 'Firefly Lane' Series!

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True Betrayals by Nora Roberts

How to describe the career of Nora Roberts? Her books have spent 16 years on the New York Times bestseller list, and three years at #1, when you add up all the weeks they've charted! Her sales are monumental. Her charity giving is admirable. But all too often these numbers obscure her artistry and her remarkable range, from sci-fi noir (her In Death series written as J.D. Robb is on our list of the Best Crime Novels Of All Time), to historical romance and contemporary romance and fantasy and on and on. Ask a hundred fans for their favorite Nora Roberts and you’ll get a hundred different, tantalizing answers, like this one from Beth Andrews, shift leader at Half Price Books in Hamilton, Ohio. “True Betrayals!” says Andrews. “A classic 90s story set in the world of horse racing, it sees a young woman find her mother and discover herself, all while surrounded by sabotage, greed, back-stabbing and murder. The leading man is delightfully charming and full of street smarts, a skill our heroine needs to save her mother and herself. A timeless tale from the queen of romance.”

Entwined Destinies by Rosalind Welles (pen name for Elsie B. Washington)

Note: This book is currently out of print and hard to find, so there are no links to shop it at the moment, nor a cover image readily available because it's not sold at major online retailers at the time of reporting. You can find out more about Entwined Destinies (and see what a copy looks like) at Steve Ammidown's Romance History website.

Know your history. That’s one important strand through the work of author Beverly Jenkins (Forbidden, on this list). So it’s no surprise Jenkins would remind Romance readers of their history when picking a novel to honor. “As an African American writer of romance fiction, my groundbreaking title is Entwined Destinies, published in 1980 by Dell,” says Jenkins, whose latest title is A Christmas To Remember ($18.99; Avon). “It was the nation’s first Black contemporary romance, and written by Elsie B. Washington under the pen name Rosalind Welles. Ms. Washington, an editor at Newsweek, was also the first African American woman to report for Life Magazine.” The novel was championed at Dell by African American editor Vivian Stephens, who went on to found the Romance Writers of America association. “At a time when there were no love stories for readers of color in print or on the big screen,” says Jenkins, “the publication of Entwined Destinies highlighted Black love in a way that had been nonexistent, and showed publishing there was a market.” Indeed, it helped open the floodgates to countless titles written by and about people of every culture and ethnicity, enriching the genre to this day. And history urges us to point out it had a precursor: the Nurse Marilyn Morgan series by Rubie Saunders, books that weren’t Romances in the classic sense because Morgan always put her career and herself first.

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This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Romance can be found anywhere—even during a “time war” between two empires that impact numerous multiverses. The agents Red and Blue are on opposite sides of this chronological conflict. At first they taunt one another with messages. But as each person jumps timelines and realities, those messages become more personal and poignant. Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone's slow-burn, literally eons-spanning work faced many roadblocks for a romance: it’s sci-fi, it’s a novella and it came out before the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once helped even your parents understand what was meant by the multiverse. Nonetheless, this 84, Charing Cross Road for fantasy fans proved a massive success. Isabeau Belisle Dempsey of 57th Street Books/Seminary Co-op in Chicago, Illinois is a fan. “This Is How You Lose The Time War is one of the most intricately woven pieces of science fiction I've ever read, as well as one of the most beautiful and heartbreakingly rendered romances,” says Dempsey. “Its prose is luminous and lyrical, striking the heartstrings like a harpsichord.”

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Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Romance author wannabes should take courage from the story of Jojo Moyes. Forget about the old story of rejection after rejection (though Moyes dealt with that; her first three novels were turned down). But even after success, even just after winning a top British romance novel award twice (a rare feat), Moyes had her latest book turned down by her publisher. Luckily, it was picked up by Penguin, which promptly saw the romantic novel Me Before You turn into an international phenomenon, supercharging Moyes’ career. So there. Never say die, authors, even if the man at the heart of this novel does make an end of life decision his true love initially rejects. (It makes us think of Harold and Maude, which has a very different vibe.) Danielle Johnson of Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware was one of the many booksellers who took this story to heart and pressed it into the hands of reader after reader, who then did the same. “The humor, suspense, and all-over emotion of this book will leave you on the edge of your seat in tears,” says Johnson. “It’s an inspiring story about being true to yourself and love and happiness will follow.”

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Heartstopper Vol. 1 by Alice Oseman

Two boys in school become instant best pals. One is gay and crushing on the other guy, who is obviously straight, isn’t he? Or maybe straight-ish? Toss in a circle of friends that casually run the sexual and gender gamut and you’ve got a series of graphic novels that are most definitely not for fans of Euphoria. It’s not envelope-pushing. It’s not graphic, despite being…you know, graphic. And the overwhelming vibe is so sweet it should be nauseating, but instead is fluttery and nostalgic for older folk and not just heart-stopping but heartwarming. The TV adaptation captures Alice Oseman’s magic very well thanks to marvelous casting, a great score, savvy song picks and whimsical touches that nod to its comic book origins. A treat.

Related: 'The Shining', 'It' and Everything in Between—Here Are All of Stephen King's Books in Publication Order

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Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen

Every romance writer begins as a romance reader and Julie Anne Long (The Perils Of Pleasure, on this list) is no exception. “Karleen Koen's wildly entertaining 1986 blockbuster enthralled me in those impressionable years before I became an author,” says Julie Anne Long, whose latest is How to Tame A Wild Rogue ($9.99 Avon). “Set in 18th century England, Koen's vast cast of charismatic, morally complex characters revolves around the star-crossed marriage of young noblewoman Barbara Adderley and the older Roger Montgeoffry, the Earl of Devane, and all of them are enmeshed in a beautifully written saga of love (requited and not), sex, power, obsession, political machinations and historical upheaval. It's joyous and heartbreaking, sexy and absolutely compelling. When I read it, I instinctively knew I wanted to write these kinds of characters, the kind who embed themselves in the hearts and imaginations of readers and inspire compassion—even the dastardly ones. And part of what gives Koen's story “sweep” is the way we witness the characters evolving throughout the book—for better and worse—and I knew I wanted to capture a bit of that feeling when I set out to write a connected romance series like Pennyroyal Green.”

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Honey & Spice by Bolu Babalola

Debut author Bolu Babalola is young enough to have done her master’s thesis on the Beyoncé album Lemonade. As Babalola says, she basically majored in Beyoncé. So it’s no surprise this British author’s first Romance is set in college. Our heroine is great at dishing out advice to the lovelorn on student radio but not so great at putting it into practice herself. Reese Witherspoon, Oprah’s Daily and bookseller Katie Garaby of Parnassus Books in Nashville are all fans. “This book reads like a love letter to classic ‘90s Black romance movies. If you love Poetic Justice or Love Jones then you will absolutely love Honey & Spice,” says Garaby, who co-hosts the Parnassus Between The Covers romance book club. “Kiki Banjo has no interest in love but finds herself fake dating the man she warned everyone on her college campus about. Funny and sweet, this is a pitch-perfect debut novel from a talented new author.”

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A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

One of the best-selling books of all time, this Dickens classic is rarely thought of as a Romance, but of course that’s exactly what it is and author Heather Graham (Phantom Evil: Krewe Of Hunters, Book 1 on this list) knows it. “My favorite romance—and novel—of all time is A Tale of Two Cities,” says Graham, whose latest are Shadow of Death ($30; MIRA) and Cry Of The Banshee: A Krewe Of Hunters Novella ($9.99; Evil Eye Concepts). “The story captures the imagination, and then there is the line that captures the heart for all time: ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.’ I first read the book as a teenager and cried my eyes out, loving it so much. Since then, I re-read it every time with each of five children when they were given the book to read in school, and every once in a while, I pull it out again because it's just so incredible a story, so beautifully well told.”

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Normal People by Sally Rooney

She’s the voice of a generation! She’s Ireland’s most popular export since U2! Or we could calm down and say that, three novels and various poems and short stories in, Sally Rooney is the real deal. Normal People became a hugely popular miniseries and turned Paul Mescal into a star, so thank you for that, Sally. But what a novel! It’s so engaging you almost don’t realize how ambitious it proves, tackling class and gender with insight and complexity. Connell is the star of his high school, almost embarrassed to be dating the shy Marianne. But she blossoms at university while Connell struggles to adapt to a wider world where he’s not automatically B.M.O.C. She’s rich, he’s working class and they are both smart enough to realize this tangled, confusing, ever-shifting relationship (friendship? love?) has to mean something. Doesn’t it?

Related: Can't Get Enough 'Bridgerton'? How to Read Julia Quinn's 'Bridgerton' Books in Order

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A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet

J.R.R. Tolkien created the modern fantasy, but his world was notably devoid of passion and romance, unless you count Gollum’s love of the One Ring. Writers have been correcting this lapse ever since. In Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker series, a powerful warlord captures the woman of magic who may be his key to the kingdom. She may also be the key to his heart, but can he convince her she’s not just fuel for his ambition? Jessie Jones of Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware loved finding out. “What's better than a soothsayer in a traveling Circus?” says Jones about our heroine’s clever way of hiding her genuine supernatural abilities. “Cat is determined to not be controlled by anyone. Her plan works…until she’s captured. If you want a great fantasy that has a twist of romance laced in, this book is for you! I seriously could not stop until I finished the series.”

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The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

You know a debut novel strikes a nerve when booksellers around the country tout it to one and all. That was certainly the case for Helen Hoang when her 2018 romance The Kiss Quotient hit the shelves. Audrey Huang of Belmont Books in Belmont, Massachusetts says it’s “an excellent romance featuring a smart, successful, socially awkward woman, who happens to be on the spectrum.” And Katie Vanderpool of Dog-Eared Books in Ames, Iowa sees it as a landmark. “Helen Hoang takes the romance genre, gives it a good shake, and turns it on its head with The Kiss Quotient,” says Vanderpool. “Stella is a math genius, and numbers provide her comfort and predictability. In fact, she would much rather spend time at her job creating algorithms than with other people. Numbers she gets; people not so much. So when her parents start pressuring her to find a partner, she decides to approach the situation with a mind toward gaining more knowledge, and who better to learn about sexual relationships with than a male escort? The Kiss Quotient gives us a neuro-divergent main character who is navigating the world around her and learning what she needs as an autistic woman to find fulfillment and happiness. Everything in this book—from its ASD [autism] representation to the steaminess exploding off the pages—is *chef's kiss*.”

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Bride of the MacHugh by Jan Cox Speas

Here’s another reader (and future bookstore owner) who remembers falling in love with their first romance novel. “This story of the Scottish Highlands in the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie was the first romance book I ever read,” says Marya Johnston, owner of Out West Books in Grand Junction, Colorado. In it, Elspeth is held captive by a clan during an uprising in the 1600s. This historical romance packs as much of a wallop for its vibrant action as for the delightful friction between the pluck of Elspeth and the ever-polite but equally stubborn Alexander MacHugh. “I was a park ranger stationed in the middle of nowhere and this book was lying around, so I picked it up,” says Johnston. “After finishing it, just a few short hours later, I remember thinking how great it was to read a history and a romance book in one. I feel that Diana Gabaldon must have read this book as well! “

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Endless Love by Scott Spencer

When young people fall in love, they feel like an explorer discovering a new continent. Surely no one else has ever felt like this before? Surely no love has ever been this all-consuming, this beautiful, this perfect? It happens again in Endless Love. Two young people—kids, really—fall in love; they imagine Romeo and Juliet have nothing on them. What’s remarkable is that writer Scott Spencer convinces us that the love of Jade and David really is that earth-shattering. Everyone around them knows it. Their parents, their friends, literally everyone acknowledges the love those two feel really is as special as they believe. Then Jade’s father banishes David from this earthly paradise, David hatches a cockamamie plan to win back the family’s trust, it goes horribly wrong and love becomes obsession. Critically acclaimed and a huge bestseller, Endless Love has been adapted into not one but two epically bad films, movies so awful you fear they’ve kept people away from the novel ever since. Don’t make that mistake.

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Wolf Gone Wild by Juliette Cross

Smart women read romances. It’s true and author Juliette Cross knows that well. Like many romance writers, she’s just as likely to urge you onto another author’s work as her own. Indeed, Juliette Cross hosts a podcast called…Smart Women Read Romances. In her own work, Cross is especially fond of crossing the supernatural with love stories, as in Wolf Gone Wild, the story of Mateo, a werewolf who hasn’t shifted in months and may be slowly going insane. Only a witch can help him, but witches like Evie stay as far away from those untrustworthy lycanthropes as possible. Though, really, Evie can’t help thinking maybe Mateo isn’t like those other werewolves…. "This is the perfect book for those that love romantic comedy and want to give paranormal romance a chance,” says Anne of Inklings Bookshop in Yakima, Washington, who isn’t afraid of cheesy wordplay. “It has kickass witches, vampires, werewolves, and grims with a heavy dose of comedic moments. It will leave you 'howling' for more!"

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Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan (pen name for Patti Callahan Henry)

Writer Patti Callahan Henry was the author of multiple best-selling contemporary romance novels, a “regional” superstar poised for that one breakout book to put her over the top. Then came Joy. That would be Joy Davidman, an admirable poet and writer and thinker immortalized by her husband C.S. Lewis. He’s the author of children’s classics like The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, as well as A Grief Observed, about the converted Catholic’s dark night of the soul after Joy’s death. Everyone knew Lewis’s side of the story: he wrote about it beautifully and the story was retold in a nonfiction book, a TV movie, a play and ultimately a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. But it was always told from C.S. Lewis’s point of view. Henry found herself fascinated by the marvelous poetry and mind of Joy Davidman. For the first time in her career, she tackled a historical romance, because she had to tell this story. Naturally, this quixotic need to retell a story everyone seemingly knew already turned into her most popular and well-reviewed work to date. Besides, isn’t a love story more satisfying when you know what both people are feeling? Now Henry shines with contemporary and historical fiction, like her latest acclaimed bestseller The Secret Book of Flora Lea ($28.99; Atria Books). But Becoming Mrs. Lewis remains a marker both for her career and the genre.

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The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian

In Georgian England, a highwayman turned purveyor of refreshments has put his criminal ways behind him. That is, until a good-looking aristocrat enters his coffee shop, determined to hire “Gladhand Jack” to pull off a daring heist, all for a good cause. They bicker, they strike a deal, they don’t quite see the sting go as planned and they fall in love, not in that order. As in all of her books, Cat Sebastian knows how to entertain and deliver a very satisfying Happy Ending. At the same time, she captures the era her characters live in and questions their and our assumptions every step of the way. Class, race, gender, privilege all come tumbling down in the face of love and Cat Sebastian’s witty way of proving The Way Things Are is not The Way Things Must Always Be. Now that’s romantic.

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

This marvelous bestseller from 1989 inspired a terrific film, a ballet and even the title of hip-hop artist Common’s 2000 breakthrough album. But let’s not forget author Laura Esquivel’s debut novel itself. Lovers of romance and food savored this tale of Tita, the youngest daughter in a large family. Tradition meant Tita must stay single and take care of her domineering mother instead of marrying the man she loved. He in turn accepted the hand of her older sister…just to be near his sweetheart. And Tita poured all her passion into her cooking; if she was sad when creating a dish, anyone who ate it would feel sad. If she was nostalgic or giddy or feeling amorous while cooking, so would anyone she served. The result is a beguiling fable about how emotions—and true love—will not be denied. Esquivel followed her passion for justice into a career in politics, but this charmer remains a landmark in showing romance knows no borders.

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Angels' Blood by Nalini Singh

New Zealand author Nalini Singh enjoys success with contemporary romances (where she clearly has a thing for rugby), crime novels like the acclaimed Quiet In Her Bones and other diverse works. But it’s her success in the paranormal romance that shines brightest. Her Guild Hunter series is going strong since launching in 2009 with no sign of stopping, a big plus for fans of romance who fall in love with an author and then want more. In the series opener, Angels’ Blood, humans live in a world where angels and vampires are mortal enemies while both can be dangerous to people in one way or another. For vampire hunter Elena, that means being hired by the archangel Raphael is a dicey proposition…especially when she becomes attracted to him. Her assignment is even more problematic, for Elena isn’t hunting down a vampire but an angel gone rogue. If your heart is already racing at the possibilities of this set-up or raising questions (What about wings? Does Raphael have wings? And umm what happens if…?) why you’ve found a new home, like so many other readers before you.

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Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Romantic suspense doesn’t get any better than Mary Stewart, who rose above the competition thanks to elegant prose and marvelous touches like breaking this novel into nine sections a la nine coaches and sprinkling poetry and other quotes throughout to telling effect. Invariably, women are placed in danger but manage to solve a mystery while developing a romance with some dashing fellow. And a very satisfying mystery as well as a romance: Nine Coaches Waiting is also on Parade’s list of The 110 Best Thriller, Crime And Suspense Novels Of All Time. Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona can’t get enough. “Here we have a murder mystery, a woman in jeopardy, and a classic Gothic set in the remote Chateau Valmy in the French Alps,” says Peters. The main characters are “a handsome, darkly brooding master, and a young English governess looking after the 9-year-old heir while probing at least one dark secret. Obvious comparisons are Jane Eyre and even Cinderella.”

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The Romantic Agenda by Claire Kann

If you think a romance novel with an asexual heroine makes no sense but are intrigued by the idea, then you are the perfect audience for this novel. “I get butterflies every time I think about The Romantic Agenda!” says Chardai Powell, bookseller and TikTok specialist at Loyalty Bookstore in Silver Spring, Maryland. “One of my favorite books of all time, centering around a black woman named Joy and her complex journey of being asexual and in love with her best friend Malcolm. There’s just something about this book that comforts me and reminds me why romance will forever be the superior genre in my eyes.” And when you’re done reading Clarie Kann's book, check out Heartstopper on Netflix. Your kids are waaaay ahead of you on this topic.

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Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik

“There just aren’t enough Sci-Fi Romance books out there, but luckily for us we live in a reality that has Jessie Mihalik’s Polaris Rising,” says Kassandra Johnson of Powell’s City Of Books in Portland, Oregon. “It’s an action-packed space adventure starring a head-strong space princess and a dangerous fugitive, both on the run from their past. Add in space politics, a capable heroine, and a dash of amazing fight scenes and you’ve got a romance that won’t let you down. A bonus to this book is the world building, which is just as steamy and intriguing as the romance that develops between the two characters.”

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The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is the definitive tale of Camelot and probably the first novel written in English. But 400 years earlier (!) in Japan, a lady-in-waiting at the court of the Emperor beat him to it with The Tale Of Genji, arguably the first novel, full stop. (Yes, an even earlier novel might be Kādambari which was published 400 years before that, but our Sanskrit is weak so we can’t speak to it.) Not to worry. Like Don Quixote (the first novel written in Spanish) and Le Morte d’Arthur, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji isn’t just a historical curiosity or the answer to a trivia question. It’s an enthralling tale of the impossibly handsome Genji, the bastard son of the Emperor who is forever falling in and out of love when not dealing with court intrigue, domestic life and more affairs than any one man should have time for. Hey, if you’re driven to write the first novel, you must have a corker to tell and Murasaki sure did.

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Love Story by Erich Segal

Success really ticks people off. And the rich kid/working class girl romance of Love Story was unforgivably successful. Twice! First, as a hugely popular novel that sold more than 21 million copies and counting. Second, as a 1970 film starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, which became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. This gets the backstory a little backwards. Erich Segal wrote the screenplay, sold it and then the studio making the movie urged him to turn it into a novel so that could help promote the film, never imagining the novel would become a blockbuster itself. The book actually had some very positive reviews, as did the film. But the knives were out: the movie was so popular it was quickly parodied by everyone from Mad magazine to The Carol Burnett Show. Critic Roger Ebert—who gave the film a perfect four stars, by the way—even coined the idea of the cinematic Ali MacGraw Disease, in which a character with an illness simply gets more and more beautiful until they die. Ah well, love means never having to say you’re sorry, even for success. To this day, if someone cracks open the book and reads its famous first line—“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?”—they’re hooked.

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The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Nicola Yoon’s beautifully written tribute to her own love story with fellow author, publisher and artist David Yoon is a touching opposites-attract romance,” says Sandie Angulo Chen, Children’s and Young Adult specialist at Loyalty Bookstores in DC and Silver Spring, Maryland. “Logical, organized Jamaican American Natasha and sensitive, creative Korean American Daniel only know each other for about 12 hours, but their connection is undeniable. The romance, while primary, is only part of the story, which explores everything from the plight of undocumented teens to the complicated history of Korean and Black communities in Los Angeles and New York. I also love that it’s one of the few interracial romances that features two people of color, and one of the few romances, period, that has a swoony Asian lead.”

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Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun

Kiss Her Once for Me is more than a queer holiday rom-com (which are all the things that drew me to it in the first place),” says Kathleen Harris, assistant manager at Half Price Books in Hamilton, Ohio. “It is largely a book about failure—both the fear of it and overcoming it—which ended up being the biggest reason why it is one of the best romances I have ever read. Ellie Oliver is about to have all her dreams fulfilled, but she lets one mistake pull her on a downward spiral over the course of a very difficult year. Through a bout of fake dating which leads to an awkward reunion with the-one-that-got-away, Ellie learns to confront her failings head-on, accept them, move on and move forward. This book has some of the best, most-deserved character arcs (for multiple characters!) all told through a fresh, laugh-out-loud prose. Alison Vochrun gives Ellie this very sassy, dynamic voice which you can’t help but fall in love with. Every inner monologue is vibrant, spunky, and full of very quotable material. It made for a relatable read, like Ellie was a real friend of mine. Seeing her learn and be messy was a treat, but also eye-opening for myself. It’s one of those stories that makes you want to fall in love a bit deeper with yourself, which isn’t something that often comes along in a romance novel, but shouldn’t it?”

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Katherine by Anya Seton

“This classic novel is not just a fabulous romance but excellent historical fiction,” says Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. “The complex, enduring love affair between John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Katherine Swynford, sister in law to Geoffrey Chaucer, and their children who were legitimized when Gaunt could finally marry Swynford—an almost impossible event—is not just a fabulous romance but explains the entire sweep of the War of the Roses between the Houses of Lancaster and York. It ended when their great-great grandson Henry won the throne, meaning Lancaster got the the win.”

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The Dead Romantics by Ashley Poston

Mention ghostly romance and we immediately think of the classic Hollywood film The Ghost And Mrs. Muir. Of course there are earlier examples: falling in love with a ghost is a haunting, tantalizing possibility for the ghost is both yours and yours alone yet forever unattainable. Kate Bush knows that: listen to her song “The Man With The Child In His Eyes.” Author Ashley Poston knows it too. “This spectral romance is a balm to the spirit,” says Nicole Brinkley, manager of Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, NY. “When writer Florence Day has to return home for an unexpected funeral, she's surprised to find herself visited by the ghost of her stoic, too-handsome editor. Romance readers will want Ashley Poston to haunt their shelves after reading this: it's soulful, punny, whimsical, and death defyingly romantic.”

Related: Hooked on the ‘ACOTAR’ Series? There’s Even More to Discover—Here Are All of Sarah J. Maas’ Books in Order

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Maurice by E.M. Forster

In romance, a Happy Ever After is almost required by some fans. They’ve no interest in heartbreak. In a gay romance, a Happy Ever After was once unthinkable. Doomed to despair, at least readers of a gay or lesbian love story could take comfort in seeing their desires written about before the protagonists faced the condemnation of society and the inevitable sad ending. So when the great novelist E.M. Forster wrote Maurice, he couldn’t even imagine it being published in his lifetime, certainly not when just being gay was cause for arrest. However, Forster could imagine something even bolder: a happy ending for the upper crust Maurice and the working class Scudder. “A foundational classic in the gay canon, whose core is, according to the author, happiness,” says Isabeau Belisle Dempsey of 57th Street Books/Seminary Co-op in Chicago, Illinois. “It’s a touching romance that also explores questions of class in 1900s England.” Forster died in June of 1970. Maurice was published seven months later. Critics hated the ending; too unrealistic, they said, quite missing the point.

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Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

A good book is a good book, whether it’s a picture book for little kids or a modernist classic for the seriously bookish or a young adult novel written by and for teens. Sarah Dessen is a Big Deal in the Young Adult genre, working in realistic teen relationships that can’t be boiled down to “Will they or won’t they” or “Does she like me or does she like like me?” The effortlessly perfect life of teen model Annabel and her friendship with the music-obsessed, semi-annoying Owen is just one more example of that. “All of Sarah Dessen's books are modern Young Adult classics,” say the folks at E. Shaver Booksellers in Savannah, Georgia. “There is no one else who so perfectly captures the teenage girl experience as her. Just Listen is a vibrant and emotional romance that explores some heavy themes, but is still full of love, hope, and humor. All of Dessen's novels make the perfect summer read.”

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Happy Endings by Thien-Kim Lam

Happy Endings is such a fun, steamy, sex-positive romcom, it’s an absolute blast to read,” says Christine Bollow, co-owner and Director of Programs at Loyalty Bookstores in Silver Spring MD and Petworth, D.C. In Thien-Kim Lam’s story, “Trixie Nguyen recently moved to Washington, DC and runs a sex toy business. During a pop-up event at a soul food restaurant, Trixie happens to reconnect with her ex, who runs the family restaurant with his sister. Her ex who left her in New Orleans...with a Post-it note. This is a second chance romance with so much heart, it will make you deliciously hungry and horny. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”

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Dark Prince by Christine Feehan

When writers deliver a breakout debut or help pioneer a genre of Romance, they don’t just change their own lives: they change other lives too. Just ask author Nalini Singh (Angels’ Blood, on this list). “Christine Feehan's Dark Prince left a big mark on me not only for the emotional and passionate story, but for showing me that there existed a specific subgenre of romance that included all the things I loved to read and write about: world-building, science fiction and/or fantasy elements, and mystery all wrapped around a powerful central romance,” says Singh, whose latest is Resonance Surge ($27 hardcover; Berkeley; out in paperback January 23). “For me, the Carpathian series is — and will always be — an absolute classic in the romance canon. Years later, Christine Feehan was the first author to give me a cover quote for my very first paranormal romance — to receive a quote from my paranormal hero was a dream come true, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

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Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

When Samuel Pepys began his diary in 1660, he recorded what time he woke up, what he ate for lunch, the actresses he dallied with, the horrors of the Plague and even his new watch. (Pepys was very fond of his new watch.) Everyone calls it a masterpiece. But when Bridget Jones keeps a diary and records her battles with weight, the plague of singleness, the challenges at work, the irritating Mr. Darcy and never once mentions a watch, male critics dismiss it as “chick lit.” It’s too funny, too romantic, too entertaining to be “real” literature, they say. Bollocks, we say. If a novel is meant to capture an era and bring to life a vivid character we know better than we know ourselves, then Helen Fielding’s novel ranks right up there. That's why you'll also find it on our list of the 222 Best Books Of All Time.

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Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean

“Nothing ruins your night like a beautiful man tied up in your carriage. And so begins the tantalizing story of Hattie and Whit,” says Michelle Badillo, shift leader at the Half Price Books of Stone Ridge Market in San Antonio, Texas, about Sarah MacLean's book. “Part social commentary, part delightful romp, all sizzling chemistry. MacLean knows how to mix engaging characters, delicious twists, and touching sick bed scenes to create a perfect and satisfying romance. This is a wonderful, engaging book that deals with societal expectations and punches them in the face. A great example of the ever evolving romance genre.”

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That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon by Kimberly Lemming

“A true testament to the power of self-publishing and community building, Kimberly Lemming's unconventional fantasy romance novels take very little seriously,” says Lore Morton, who takes romance novels very seriously at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC. In her breakout book, Lemming manages to lovingly mock and sex up the fantasy genre with the story of a spice trader named Cinnamon who rescues a hot and very drunk demon named Fallon. A bit of a homebody, Cin is soon off on a quest to help kill the wicked witch torturing Fallon's people. “The effect is glorious,” says Morton. “A fun, energetic, and fast-paced book that made me snort so loud that my next-door neighbor banged on our wall and told me to shut up, and also made me nervously look side to side on public transport when I reached the good [read "spicy"] parts.”

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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, the promise of travel, the dream of escaping to something better. At least, that’s what Paul Simon sang. So running away to join the circus has an eternal appeal. When a vet student’s life collapses around him in the 1930s, he jumps on the nearest train…and finds he’s joined the circus for real. It’s anything but romantic: the elephants have a cruel trainer, a man keeps his wife under thrall and performers are dumped the moment they can’t do the work, among other harsh realities. But that elephant can defend itself, those performers have their own ideas and that trapped wife is beautiful and smart and determined to take control of her life. Maybe the romance in Sara Gruen’s novel is not about escaping responsibility but the taking of it. Caring for others instead of yourself is a good first step to a happy life and our vet takes it. This bestseller became a hit film starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. But keep your eyes on the stage adaptation made in collaboration with the marvelous PigPen troupe opening this February on Broadway . That will bring Water For Elephants more fans than ever before.

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Bloom by Kevin Panetta; illustrations by Savanna Ganucheau

Bloom is a buttery, fresh-baked pastry of a graphic novel perfect for fans of Heartstopper,” says Stacy Wayne Durham of Powell’s City Of Books in Portland, Oregon. It’s a sweet story of first love in which high school graduate Ari longs to escape his family’s bakery business so he can head to the big city and follow his rock and roll dreams. Hector wants to take Ari’s place at the bakery because this kind and sexy guy loves baking as much as Ari hates it. Suddenly, Ari isn’t so eager to leave. “Ari and Hector will turn kids' eyes to hearts and turn adults into melancholy puddles,” says Wayne Durham. “Laced with the burden of family expectation, queer joy and "right-place-right-time" romance, Bloom is here to remind us that sometimes all you need is a smooch over warm baked goods to make the world feel a little less awful.”

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Shop it at Bookshop.org!

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

Every great writer builds on the past. And few honor that history as well as Alyssa Cole, who savors many genres but often sets her period romances amidst pivotal moments in time, such as the Harlem Renaissance. Like Beverly Jenkins—to name one notable precursor—Cole captures the past in all its complexity. That gives the relationships at their heart more impact and shows the sacrifices made to get us where we are today…and thus the hard work that needs to be done to keep moving forward. But not without some love on the way. Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstores in Washington D.C. and Silver Spring, Maryland appreciates that. 

“As the first book in The Loyal League series, An Extraordinary Union stands out for being as sexy as it is thrilling,” says Depp, the owner and head buyer at Loyalty. “The story of Elle and Malcom shows what Black folks did during the Civil War, a story we are rarely told. As spies from different parts of the country, they find hope in each other and in their work to bring news of a Confederate plot to the Union Army. The chemistry blooms as the plot grows more dynamic and you'll find yourself speeding towards the end of the book and right into the next installment. Elle is a fabulous and passionate character, expressed vividly through Alyssa Cole's pen. The perceptible tension between her and Malcolm will have you second guessing how the happy ending of this Romance will work out in the most horrid of histories (and you will not be disappointed).”

Related: How to Read 'The Summer I Turned Pretty' Author Jenny Han's Books in Order

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Partners in Crime by Alisha Rai

“Imagine a book version of the movie The Hangover,” Amy Diephouse—of Schuler Books of Grand Rapids, Michigan—says about Alisha Rai's novel. “But instead of four drunk bachelors, it’s two ex-lovers scrambling for a second chance at love through the most outrageous series of shenanigans and hijinks imaginable. Rai writes romantic tension into every scene, sprinkles quirky side characters throughout and throws in a twist at the end that almost gave me whiplash. This is the book that solidified my new obsession with adventure rom-coms!”

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Shop it at Bookshop.org!

Lord Perfect by Loretta Chase

“The problem with Loretta Chase is that she offers readers a veritable embarrassment of riches when it comes to choosing her ‘best’ book,” says John Charles of Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Many people do hold Lord of Scoundrels as being her shining romantic gift to romance fans.” That’s a Regency retelling of Beauty and the Beast often mentioned as one of the best historical romances of all time. “You could also make a case for Mr. Imperfect or Miss Wonderful, etc. But while Lord of Scoundrels will always have a place on my keeper shelf of romances, there is something about Lord Perfect that pushes it just a notch above for me. Written more than a decade after Lord of Scoundrels, Lord Perfect is Chase at her mature literary best. The wit is perhaps a tad more sardonic, the heroine a bit more worldly-wise, and the skill with which Chase takes a by-the-book hero and shows him the joy that can be found in learning how to bend in life is pure reading perfection.”

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Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Yadriel is a very passionate modern teen. Proud of his Cuban/Mexican roots, Yadriel is also passionate about being transgender and convincing his family to accept that. And accept that Yadriel is a brujo—summoner of spirits—just like all his ancestors. To prove his competence, Yadriel summons the ghost of his murdered cousin…or at least tries to summon it. Instead he calls up the ghost of Julian, the “bad boy” of Yadriel’s school. Julian is also determined to figure out what happened and won’t go back from whence he came. So he and Yadriel reluctantly team up. Well, not that reluctantly.

By boldly centering new characters, Aiden Thomas enlivens the romance genre. “A deeply heartwarming and uplifting YA book for readers of all ages,” says Emily Autenrieth, the owner of A Seat At The Table Books in Laguna Springs, California “Cemetery Boys takes beloved staples like ‘bad boy with a good heart’ and ‘death-defying love story’ and makes them new through a transgender Latinx main character who wants to become a brujo like the men in his family before him. Endearing and life-giving.”

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The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

The best-selling novel in Australian history, The Thorn Birds proved an equal sensation as a TV miniseries starring Barbara Stanwyck and Richard Chamberlain (as a very conflicted priest). McCullough went on to deliver a seven-volume passion project about Julius Caesar. But it’s the passion in her second novel that made an impact on author Patti Callahan Henry, whose own novel Becoming Mrs. Lewis is also on this list. “I read The Thorn Birds when I was in Junior High and I finally understood the phrase, ‘forbidden love,’” says Callahan Henry, whose latest novel is The Secret Book Of Flora Lea ($28.99; Atria). “Set in the early 1900s on a sheep station in the Australian outback, this full sweeping family saga has it all: love, betrayal, struggle, secrets and of course in the mix of it all an impossible choice, as well as an irresistible draw to both the lover and to God. I rooted for love until the very end, still, even now wishing for a different outcome. I was enchanted by the setting, by Ralph and Meggie and by the sheer beauty of Colleen McCullough’s language. Nearly forty years after turning the final page, I still think about this story and its haunting tale of love.”

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Highland Velvet by Jude Deveraux

Kilts are a thing in romance novels, but author Jude Deveraux even managed to make birth order theory a sexy element in one of her series. “The story of Stephen Montgomery and Brenna MacArran, set in 16th century Scotland, was at the forefront of a trend away from the violent rape romances of the 1970s,” says bookseller Diana Tixier Herald of Out West Books in Grand Junction, Colorado. “Stephen—the second of the four Montgomery brothers—proved that a romance hero could be a good guy, kindness could be sexy and being supportive is a sign of strength. It also portrayed a romance heroine who was strong and authoritative. Deveraux utilized birth order theory in creating the personalities of heroes in her Velvet series. I attribute my love of romance novels to discovering that Stephen’s personality traits perfectly echoed those of my husband and the Montgomery brothers depicted in the other books in the Velvet series shared traits with my brothers-in-law. “

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You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi

Writer Akwaeke Emezi is one of the most acclaimed new writers around. In just five years, she’s made her mark on genres like the memoir, young adult and literary fiction. Indeed, her novel The Death Of Vivek Oji is on our list of The 222 Best Novels Of All Time. Now she’s delivered a romance for the ages, one that looks at the difficult question of grief and when to reawaken the possibility of love. Its heroine spent five years mourning after a car accident took the man she loved. Can she love again? Briana Ryan certainly loves the book that asks this. “You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty stands apart,” says Ryan, the owner of Wicked Words, the online gathering space for romance fans. “Romantic, steamy, deeply emotional, incredibly complex, and deliciously messy, this is a book romance readers can really sink their teeth into. Emezi has beautifully crafted an incredibly dynamic story designed to capture attention and provoke readers' emotions. I mean seriously. Just take a peek at the first page. Or the first line for that matter. You're guaranteed to have a reaction to an opener like that. This is the powerfully bold representation of loss and love, in all its complicated glory, that romance readers of today's generation have been craving. Emezi set a new bar for the genre with this title and it's one we'll be talking about for generations to come.”

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Writer Madeline Miller spent a decade bringing the passionate romance at the heart of Homer’s Iliad to vivid life. The love between Achilles and Patroclus upends the entire Trojan War and it’s there for all to read in the epic poem dating from roughly 2700 years ago. And still it came as a shock to some in 2011 when Miller brought these two lovers so fully and beautifully to life in her bestselling, critically acclaimed debut novel, The Song Of Achilles, which is also on our list of the 222 Best Books Of All Time. Miller did it again by turning an enchantress of The Odyssey from a minor villain to a complex, fascinating heroine in her 2018 book Circe. Surely Mary Renault and Robert Graves look on approvingly, two similar writers of historical fiction who captured the imagination of readers.

Related: Known for Hits Like 'Daisy Jones & The Six' and 'Malibu Rising,' Here Are All of Taylor Jenkins Reid's Books in Order

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The Hunter by Kerrigan Byrne

Romance authors often have multiple series to their credit, making the heads of newcomers spin. Where to begin? That’s where booksellers like Mecca Archuleta come in hand. If you ask her about Kerrigan Byrne—the author of the Fiona Mahoney Mysteries and A Goode Girls Romance and the Devil You Know series, for starters—she’ll confidently point you in the direction of The Hunter. “It’s one of my absolute favorites in Byrne's Victorian Rebel series,” says Archuleta, the romance expert at Powells Books on Hawthorne in Portland, Oregon. “A lethal assassin who feels nothing ends up in a battle of feelings over his current target.” Indeed, the innocent but passionate Millicent LeCour knows that Christopher Argent has been hired to kill her. It’s dangerous to put her fate in his hands, but that’s exactly where she wants to be anyway. “Full of action and steam, this book packs a punch,” says Archuleta.

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Mistakes Were Made by Meryl Wilsner

Mistakes Were Made is a steamy sapphic rom-com in which our heroine somehow manages to accidentally hook up with her college roommate's mom,” says Katie Garaby, a bookseller at Parnassus Books in Nashville and co-host of its Between The Covers romance book club. “Age-gap romances aren't typically my thing, but Meryl Wilsner turns this trope on its head and it really works. As someone who is constantly on the hunt for a good queer romance, Mistakes Were Made is one of the best.”

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. At the time, that wasn’t a big deal, as such. After all, four of the first seven winners were women. Men slowly began to dominate the award, with women now making up only a third of all winners. Men also dominate in The Age Of Innocence. The protagonist, Newland Archer, is accustomed to getting whatever he wants: after all, Newland is old money, upper class and proud of it. He should marry the innocent-seeming May Welland, but he’s drawn to the unsuitable yet more interesting Ellen Olenska. Newland pursues her, but his peers won’t have it and quietly disapprove. The bonds of society, the sharply defined lines between old money and new, between the “better” classes and the lower ones are all on display in Wharton’s dissection of a world she knew so well. Pregnancy as a plot twist and a weapon? You might say only a woman would have thought of that. But you’d be more correct to say only a great writer would have deployed it so well.

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Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

In the mid-1980s, a Korean-American boy who’s not “man” enough for his father and a chubby red-haired girl who is bullied at school sit next to each other on the school bus. He’s reading comic books, she’s secretly side-eying them to read along, he moves the comics closer and closer to her so she can do so… and they begin to talk. Maybe you’ll love the alternating chapters told from each of their perspectives. Maybe you’ll love their music mixtapes and banter worthy of a screwball comedy.

Park: “Bono met his wife in high school.”
Eleanor: “So did Jerry Lee Lewis.” 

Maybe you’ll love the very real burdens that threaten their relationship, from Park’s complicated feelings about his ethnicity to Eleanor’s brutal home life with an abusive father. But if you’re like author John Green and countless other readers, you’ll definitely love this Rainbow Rowell novel.

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Shop it on Bookshop.org!

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Where to start with Sarah Waters? It might depend on which genre you love the most. Her wonderful debut, Tipping The Velvet, is on our list of the 222 Best Books Of All Time. But you’ll also find her crime novel Fingersmith on our list of the 110 Best Thriller, Crime, Suspense Novels Of All Time. And while we might have chosen one of her other terrific books for their intense romantic elements, here we are again with Fingersmith, in which a con artist must work as a maid to convince a wealthy heiress to elope with the maid’s conniving compatriot. Maggie Robe, Marketing & Events Manager of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, says newcomers to the Welsh author Waters should start right here. “In this twisty, sexy, queer romance set in Victorian England,” says Robe, “aristocratic Maud, lonely orphan Sue and the infamous con man known as ‘the Gentleman’ play an elaborate game of cat and mouse where no one sees what’s coming, including love. This book will make you gasp in more ways than one.”

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The Princess Bride by William Goldman

William Goldman is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of movie classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men. He also wrote about two dozen books, including a nonfiction memoir about Hollywood that captures the entire industry in one sentence: “Nobody knows anything.” But nothing tops the pleasures of his fantasy novel The Princess Bride, which is also on our list of the 222 Best Books Of All Time. It tells the story of Buttercup, a young woman who believes her true love died at the hands of the Dread Pirate Robert. She’s pressured to marry Prince Humperdinck, heir to the throne of Florin. 

Before the wedding takes place, Buttercup is kidnapped by a rather kindly trio of outlaws. Toss in a framing device that includes details from the author’s “real” life, silly footnotes and other nonsense about this book being an abridged version of an earlier book that really wasn’t as good as the author remembered and you’ve got a treat. It’s funny, charming and swooningly romantic. Goldman’s novel was twice blessed. First, it was turned into an equally magical film in 1987 that beautifully captures the tone of the book. Second, while Goldman was determined to write a sequel called Buttercup’s Baby, he never could recapture the magic and gave up. So readers will never be tempted to read a sequel that would inevitably fall short of the original. So there it sits: a perfect little gem, just waiting for you and your children to enjoy.

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Coffee Boy by Austin Chant

Diverse characters and diverse ways of reaching an audience are both present in Coffee Boy by Austin Chant. Recommended by Kaitlyn Mahoney of Under The Umbrella bookstore in Salt Lake City, Utah, it’s a self-published romance about Kieran, an out trans man who graduates from college and lands an internship on a political campaign. Sure, Kieran is little better than the Coffee Boy, but he gets to watch the inner workings of running for office. The only problem? Kieran’s immediate superior Seth, who micromanages him in a humorless fashion. It’s not nice but Kieran takes some comfort in watching Seth hopelessly crush on their very straight boss. Soon, Kieran realizes the uptight Seth is actually a sweetheart and develops his own crush. Naturally, nothing could come of it…. When major publishers hesitated to put new twists like this on the romance genre, authors like Chant seized the chance to tell their own stories…and then sell their own stories online. It’s a whole new world.

Shop 'A Farewell to Arms' on Bookshop.org!
Shop 'A Farewell to Arms' on Bookshop.org!
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Shop 'The Sun Also Rises' on Bookshop.org!

A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway has such a swaggering, macho image that one rarely thinks of him when it comes to romance. But passion provides the beating heart of many of his works. Writer Nicholas Sparks, whose The Notebook is also on this list, highlights the WWI novel, A Farewell To Arms, as a favorite. “With themes of danger and confusion intertwining with love and loss, it has earned its place as a masterpiece of 20th century literature,” says Sparks, whose latest novel is Dreamland ($18; Random House).

Also making the case for Hemingway’s softer side is Benjamin Alire Sáenz, whose novel Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe is also on this list. “One of my favorite romance novels (though few would put it in that category) is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises,” says Sáenz, whose most recent book is Aristotle and Dante Dive Into The Waters Of The World ($14.99; Simon & Schuster). “Jake and Lady Brett wander through Europe with no purpose, with an emptiness that cannot be filled. The war has left both Jake and Lady Brett with wounds that render them incapable of intimacy. They are lost souls desperate to find meaning in a broken world that is too numb to feel. Jake’s wounds are physical, Lady Brett's are emotional. Their impossible yearning for love and one another makes for one of the most moving and tragic novels I have ever read.”

Related: Colleen Hoover Books in Order

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A Seditious Affair by K.J. Charles

Sometimes a historical setting is a glittery backdrop for witty banter, beautiful outfits and stately homes. Other times, as in the Regency-era Society Of Gentlemen series, the characters live in that world. The reality of their lives informs the way they talk and think and fall in and out of love. Silas is a determined Radical fighting hard to bring about justice and change to a Britain built for the wealthy. Dominic is a well-born Tory who takes his government job seriously. They argue over literature and politics and have clandestine sex every Wednesday, even though it could destroy both their lives. “I think K.J. Charles is one of the best romance writers, full stop,” says Adriana Herrera, author of A Caribbean Heiress In Paris (on this list) and most recently three steamy novellas with a holiday theme dubbed the Toy Runners trilogy that begins with Her Night With Santa ($2.99 ebook; Adriana Herrera Publishing). “But this book in particular was revelatory to me in a singular way, leaning into real history in a romance was no impediment to delivering an intense, deeply sensual, satisfying romance. A seditionist and government agent caught in a love affair and a treason scandal…and we still get a happy ending. A queer historical romance classic.”

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The Bodyguard by Katherine Center

Ahh, the bodyguard. That figure of strength you must trust with your life; sometimes resentfully, sometimes gratefully. But always with a certain...tension, because the bodyguard is always there. Whether it’s Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in the film The Bodyguard or Richard Madden and Keely Hawes in the UK TV series Bodyguard, it’s the fool-proof set-up for sparks to fly. Katherine Center knows that full well. She flips the genders; in this novel, the security is provided by the competent Hannah, while Jack is the superstar celeb looking to head home. To keep his family from freaking out over death threats, Jack convinces Hannah to pose as his girlfriend and...oh, you get the idea. Bookseller Tiffany Lauderdale Phillips calls it the perfect comfort read, which makes sense since Center is dubbed by many the Queen of Comfort Reads. “You’ll feel your shoulders drop in the safety of the world of this book,” says Phillips, the owner of Wild Geese Bookshop in Franklin, Indiana. “There’s great chemistry between the characters and it’s a joy to get to know them. I’m already rooting for a movie version.”

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The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

A landmark talent in the romance genre, author Kathleen E. Woodiwiss broke every rule. Instead of a tepid, brief novel with a resolutely virginal heroine, she delivered epic romances at epic lengths, rare at the time for a paperback original. Woodiwiss took care to be historically accurate and her novels were globe-trotting. She had a major influence on the industry and certainly had a similar influence on author Debbie Macomber., whose latest release is the holiday novella Jack Frost ($12.99; Debbie Macbomber Inc.). “Back in the early 1980s, I read Kathleen Woodiwiss,” says Macomber. “The Wolf and the Dove. The story blew me away. It was history, conflict, rivalry and romance, all rolled into one incredible story. The book’s impact on me was profound. It was at this point that I realized I wanted to be this kind of storyteller; one who would touch hearts, inspire hope, and give the reader the same feeling Kathleen’s book gave me.”

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The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs

Alissa Redmond, the owner of South Main Book Company in Salisbury, North Carolina pictured the perfect story about being a bookseller and—boom—there it was. "Soon after moving to Salisbury and purchasing South Main Book Company, I felt compelled to start plotting out a Hallmark movie script detailing life in my idyllic bookstore,” says Redmond. “As I am not a professional author, I was extremely grateful to find Susan Wiggs effortlessly telling a similar tale far better than I could with her novel The Lost And Found Bookshop. Set in San Francisco, Wigg’s protagonist Natalie Harper comes home from a lucrative but deeply unsatisfying career in California’s wine country. She’s returned to care for her grandfather, who suffers from bouts of dementia. He keeps it somewhat at bay by living in the store his family has owned for over a century. Faced with difficult financial decisions, Natalie and her grandfather uncover family heirlooms and historic artifacts in the walls of their bookstore with the help of handsome handyman Peach Gallagher. This book could not be more delightful, will undoubtedly warm your heart, and might inspire you to become a bookseller—arguably the greatest job on earth."

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The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

You meet someone and immediately fall into an intimate, deep connection that makes you feel like you’ve known each other for years. Well, if one of you is a time traveler, maybe you have! That’s the delicious, head-spinning conceit of Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel. A man with a genetic disorder jumps back and forth in time, especially under moments of stress. And in the midst of those uncontrollable jumps, he meets his soulmate when she’s 20 and he’s 28 years old. It’s the first time he’s spoken to her…but she’s known him all her life. It’s romantic, crazy, heart-breaking and a fresh spin on the challenges of a relationship. Niffenegger delivered on this promise with various artistic endeavors including a novella, short stories, graphic novels, anthologies, artwork and one other full-length novel. A long-promised sequel to The Time Traveler’s Wife is aborning but you’ll have to be patient…or find a lover who can jump into the future and grab you a copy.

Related: It's No Longer a Mystery—Here Are All of Daniel Silva's Books in Order

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Chef’s Kiss by T.J. Alexander

The way to a lover’s heart is often through their stomach. That’s why gastro-romance is an official subgenre of love stories. Toss in our love of cooking shows on TV and online—not to mention romance’s open-arms policy for new objects of desire—and you’ve got T.J. Alexander's Chef’s Kiss. Pastry chef Simone just wants to work on her recipes for a top New York publisher. But it’s the 21st century, so this solitary genius is forced into making cooking videos...and they fall flat. Enter the annoyingly chipper test kitchen manager Ray who unexpectedly becomes a viral sensation, comes out as nonbinary and turns Simone from a wary ally to a superfan. Bookseller Maggie Belfi of All She Wrote Books in Somerville, Massachusetts loves Alexander’s bold recipe. “First of all, this novel has a non-binary lead!!!” says Belfi. “Second of all, it's all the best parts of early Bon Appétit test kitchen meets rom-com meets ‘GAH WILL THEY OR WON'T THEY KISS?!’”

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The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye

Born and raised in India, then sent to boarding school in Great Britain, writer M.M. Kaye was destined to write a novel about the British Empire. First she spent decades writing and/or illustrating children’s books and penning a series of thrillers and stand-alone novels, none of them creating much of a stir. They weren’t nearly as dramatic as Kaye’s real life. She fell in love during World War II with a British Indian Army officer who was married and four years younger than her. Kaye had one child by him and was pregnant with a second before they actually got married. It was the war, she shrugged. Then her literary agent Paul Scott urged Kaye to write about India (He himself shot to fame with the Raj Quartet novels). Over the next twenty years, Kaye wrote three books of historical fiction. The first was gutted by bad editing; the second did better. And in 1978, Kaye published her doorstopper of a masterpiece, The Far Pavilions. It received major acclaim as a romantic spin on Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, enjoyed huge sales and became HBO’s first miniseries. Kaye lived another 26 years and delivered a trilogy of memoirs, but she never wrote a novel again.

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Before I Let Go by Kennedy Ryan

Is there an official Second Chance sub-category? There should be, whether it’s the amusing “Of course they’ll get back together” romantic comedy trope found in movies like The Philadelphia Story, or the raw and real second chance romance found in Before I Let Go. Yasmen and Josiah broke up, but they’re never apart. Still licking her wounds but beginning to celebrate life again, Yasmen works alongside Josiah on their successful restaurant Grit as well as the more important work of raising their two children. A miscarriage, pain and divorce separate them, but that initial spark is always threatening—or promising—to ignite again. Hannah Kerbs of Parnassus Books in Nashville loves this romance amidst real challenges. “Some of the very best romances reckon with some of the hardest parts of life,” says Kerb, co-host of the Between The Covers romance book club. “And Before I Let Go is not afraid to do just that. Kennedy Ryan’s powerhouse of a novel proves that hope can be found even after surviving immeasurable loss, and that happy endings are worth fighting for.” Ryan’s next novel This Could Be Us comes out in March a.k.a. Not Soon Enough.

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Sometimes you just want a good story. Oh yes, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winner is beautifully written and grapples with all sorts of important themes; how could any book set in part during World War II that’s worth its salt fail to do so? But let the scholars parse its greatness. You’ll simply be caught up in the tale of Marie-Laure, a little blind girl who grows up in Paris and then flees the war to reside in Saint-Malo. Her father builds his daughter a model city of their new town so she can learn her way around. Then he disappears. Marie-Laure’s story is interwoven with the story of a little German boy named Werner, who is handy with electronics. If you expect their paths to cross during the war, well, you won’t be disappointed. But first, you’ll learn about the cursed diamond known as the Sea Of Flames, an old man still haunted by World War I, a maid who takes part in the Resistance and so much more. A treat and a masterpiece: we also included it on our list of the 222 Best Books Of All Time.

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Soulless by Gail Carriger

If the modern romance has a defining characteristic, it’s a joy in mashing up all sorts of genres. Take this crime/fantasy/rom-com/romance bit of deliciousness baked up by Gail Carriger. “Alexia Tarabotti, soulless spinster, just wants to ignore a societal ball and enjoy a piece of cake,” says Nicole Brinkley, manager of Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, New York. “But when she accidentally kills an intruding vampire, she finds herself in the middle of an investigation led by the appalling and gorgeous werewolf Lord Maccon. This steampunk paranormal romance is an absolute riot — a hilarious, clever adventure that will please both romance readers and fantasy fans.”

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Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt

Writer Eleanor Alice Burford had a pseudonym for every occasion. As Jean Plaidy she wrote historical novels about European royalty. As Philippa Carr, she delivered sprawling family sagas taking place over many generations. Under various other names she wrote crime novels and mysteries. And in the midst of it all, in 1960, at the reported urging of her publisher she chose the name Victoria Holt and wrote Mistress of Mellyn. It helped revive the Gothic romance for a modern audience. The story was set in Cornwall where she and her husband lived during World War II and owed such a debt to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier that some assumed it was actually written by du Maurier. Reviews were strong and the book was a smash success. Burford wrote many more as Holt. Showing admirable flair, she used her commercial success to escape the English winters by taking annual three-month cruises to exotic places around the world. Burford then set later novels at least in part at those locations. She even died at sea while on a cruise between Greece and Egypt in 1993, but not before writing hundreds of novels like Mistress of Mellyn that remain enduringly popular.

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Next to You by Hannah Bonam-Young

Author Hannah Bonam-Young says she proudly lives near Niagara Falls with her childhood-friend-turned-husband Ben. So who better to write a Romance about how the person you’re meant to be with is right there in front of you? Hannah Kerbs, a bookseller at Parnassus Books in Nashville who co-hosts its romance book club Between The Covers, is a big fan of Bonam-Young’s novel Next To You. It’s the story of two friends, Lane and Matt, who are admittedly attracted to each other. She wants to renovate a bus into a home. He’s a handyman and offers to help in every possible way. Since Lane is utterly opposed to settling down while Matt yearns to nest, they’ll keep it strictly platonic. Sort of. “This underrated gem has everything I want in a romance novel,” says Kerbs. “Lovable characters who grow together, swoon-worthy spice and that blissful sort of storytelling that sweeps us away from our troubles. I laughed, I cried, and most importantly, I loved reading this beautiful story about a woman learning to forgive herself and her friend who (not so) secretly adores her.”

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When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

When romance is happening to you, it’s always fresh and new. That’s why a story that sounds all too familiar to some—bright-eyed newcomer to the big city finds love and a home in a welcoming bar—is thrilling to others. Author Camille Perri knows the cliches she is breaking down and revitalizing in this best-selling follow-up to her acclaimed debut The Assistants. Old-fashioned Katie is unsure of herself and astonished to be attracted to Cassidy, a woman nonchalantly wearing a man’s suit who has her own ideas of life. Cassidy thinks she knows what she wants…until she meets the demure, innocent Katie. Hey, when it works, it works. “When Katie Met Cassidy offers joy, humor and breaking and remaking of romance-genre archetypes, alongside a love story that is all that and more,” says Clancey D’Isa of 57th St. Books in Chicago.

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North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

What qualifies as a love story? Must it have nothing but love on its mind? Critics used to dismiss romances in part because they were written by women. And that’s an old story. Historically, women who published often used pseudonyms or wrote anonymously because writing was not considered a fit occupation for them. And when they began to do so openly, they were often pilloried. Elizabeth Gaskell was syndicated by no less than Charles Dickens but her work was mocked. North and South is as much about social issues as any Dickens novel and there’s the problem. What could a woman know about mills? Or manufacturing? Gaskell simply had no business writing about such things. And yet she did. Only in recent decades has her work been reconsidered and celebrated, perhaps none more than North And South. (Though Cranford is a close second in praise, thanks in part to an excellent UK miniseries starring Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton). Still, at the heart of this sprawling, fascinating novel that covers workers striking and sailors mutinying and men of conscience leaving the Church of England and women with opinions is, of course, a Romance. Margaret Hale is a 19-year-old woman who empathizes with workers while John Thornton is the master of Marlborough Mills. They will battle and misunderstand and break apart and then finally realize they are fit for one another in a style that would make Gaskell’s great influence Jane Austen very proud indeed.

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Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

Is First Love invariably a sad romance or merely a right-of-passage for most people not named Romeo or Juliet? We say the latter and few novels (or movies!) capture First Love better than Call Me By Your Name, the debut novel of André Aciman. In this modestly May-December romance, 17-year-old Elio flirts with and then falls hard for his father’s 24-year-old grad student assistant named Oliver. They do blush-worthy things to innocent fruit and then properly consummate their love. But summer ends and the two part. Was it youthful passion or the Real Thing? The film stays put in the 1980s to embrace as much heartbreak as possible. The novel deepens our understanding by showing how Elio and Oliver fare over the next 20 years. Both will make you wistful for the past.

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Gift of Gold by Jayne Ann Krentz

Romance contains as many subgenres as there are daring writers and one of the boldest pioneers is Jayne Ann Krentz. Author Christine Feehan (Dark Prince, also on this list) took inspiration from Krentz’s fearless blending of genres. “Gift of Gold is the paranormal romance that inspired me,” says Feehan, whose latest is Dark Memory ($29; Berkley). “It opened the realm of possibilities for creating my own worlds. It’s beautifully layered both in story and characters. Jonas has the ability to touch something and know things about it. So when he finds an earring left by a woman he helped save, he knows there is something special about her that will change his life.” Gift Of Gold was just one of four books Krentz published in 1988, further evidence of the fertile mind that continues to nurture her career almost 40 years later.

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Seven Days in June by Tia Williams

Eva Mercy is a single mom and writes erotica. Shane Hall is a reclusive, prestigious author. When they meet in Brooklyn, you might expect an opposites-attract rom-com. But they’re not falling in love at first sight. Instead, they’re both resisting the intense chemistry these two artists felt for each other when they were teenagers some 15 years ago. Is it too late for love? Too soon? Or are they finally ready to stop writing to each other in their fiction and start talking IRL? “Seven Days in June is an exercise in hope and deep connection,” says Janet Geddis, the owner/founder of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia. “It’s a book that shows romance and love can triumph even in the very real, very messy world. Tia Williams's characters are so vividly drawn that I sometimes catch myself wondering what they're up to, forgetting entirely that they are works of fiction.”

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The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

Like many authors, Jennifer Donnelly ranges widely, from picture books like Humble Pie to historical fiction set in the American Revolution and a trilogy covering the era of Jack The Ripper. She even has a stand-alone novel called A Northern Light based on the same true crime as Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (which became the movie masterpiece A Place In The Sun starring the most beautiful film couple of all time: Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift). Where to start? Many would say A Northern Light, a novel garlanded with awards. But Rae Ann Parker of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee begs to differ. “The Winter Rose—the second book in Donnelly’s Tea Rose trilogy—is my all-time favorite romance,” says Parker, the Director of Books and Events for Young Readers at Parnassus. “India Selwyn-Jones, trying to gain respect as a female physician in London 1900, and crime boss Sid Malone, seem to be opposites in every way. Until she saves his life and he shows her the real lives of her patients. An epic historical romance.” Donnelly is often shelved in the Young Adult section, but hefty and satisfying romances like hers are too good to leave just to the kids.

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Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Some novels are secrets you share with a select few you’re certain will “get” it. You want everyone in the world to read them, but somehow you know they’re too special for that. Those books are all the more precious for being so world-beatingly good and yet remaining a cult favorite. And you know you’ve made a friend for life when you discover they’ve read that favorite, secret book and love it just as much as you do. Ellen Kushner's novel is one of those books. Lara Elena Donnelly (author of Amberlough, also on this list) wants to share it with you. “Swordspoint is an elegant, eminently re-readable romance, operating on multiple levels of intrigue,” says Donnelly, author most recently of Base Notes ($15.95; Thomas & Mercer). “Every time I return to it I feel like I learn something new about the characters and their relationships, and something new about the craft of writing. It's the book I have picked apart most intensely with other writer friends, with the greatest satisfaction. It defies easy genre categorization, and should be read by anyone who craves swashbuckling, sex, and skullduggery.”

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When a Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa Dare

You never forget your first romance…or your first romance novel. That explains how Renee Becher quickly chose one book out of the dozen-plus novels and novellas written by Tessa Dare, whose long-anticipated next novel