Say “romance novel,” and most people will immediately think of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, which has had a firm hold on pop culture for the past several years (with no end in sight; you might have heard that the whole series is being reissued from the point of view of Christian Grey, because easy money). No hate to E. L. James — she is, after all, laughing all the way to the bank — but there’s a lot more to the romance genre than just her best-sellers about BDSM.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, here’s a roundup of romance with well-executed plots, character development, humor, suspense, and — OK, OK, the good stuff: lots of hot n’ heavy sex scenes.
The latest book in Shalvis’ Heartbreaker Bay series follows Kylie Masters as she tries to track down an important keepsake. She enlists Joe Malone to help — he’s ex-military after all, he can probably find a thing or two! — the only problem is that the pair shared an electrifying kiss and he never called her afterward. This tension propels the romance, and even though it sounds pretty ridiculous, Shalvis manages to keep the plot just short of eyeroll-worthy. Overall, a great romantic comedy with some suspense — like an episode of “Friends,” if “Friends” had sex scenes. So like, the porno version of “Friends.” But better.
A modern-day take on Romeo and Juliet (forbidden love, warring families), minus the tragedy and plus a whole lot of sexiness. Rai manages to create a full world, inhabited by three-dimensional characters coping with real struggles. Did I mention the sex? This one’s pretty steamy and dramatic.
Centered around a “Dancing with the Stars”-type reality competition, Stone Nielson (ruggedly handsome celebrity) can’t ignore the attraction he starts to feel for his partner Gina Morales (ambitious and headstrong professional dancer). This novel breaks the romance mold by being set in contemporary times with a Latina protagonist.
MacLean famously rewrote her book just after the 2016 election (and just before her deadline) to transform her hero into an “alpha feminist.” The revised tale, of a duchess who must find her husband (the duke) a new wife before he will grant a divorce, is heavy on the angst, but MacLean handles it exceptionally well. A rare romance novel that has you feeling the man’s anguish over a lost love.
The third book in the Westcott Series (preceded by “Someone to Love” and “Someone to Hold”), “Someone to Wed” is a traditional bodice-ripper: Wren Heyden, a shut-in who considers herself disfigured, has come into enough money that she believes she can buy herself a husband. Enter the new Earl of Riverdale, Alexander Westcott, Wren’s third choice for the job. Even still, with each passing day, she finds him more and more attractive … you get the gist.
The Civil War is devastating North Carolina, where Marlie lives as a free black woman with her sister (who is white; Marlie’s father was the plantation owner). As Marlie engages in covert efforts for the Union, she meets imprisoned Union solder Ewan and the attraction is instant. The tension really ratchets up after he escapes and she lets him hide out in her house. “A Hope Divided” is definitely much more than a steamy romance novel; it’s also suspenseful and full of relationships complicated by race and class.
Science fiction with a sexy twist. Devi Morris is an unusual heroine for a romance novel: She’s a mercenary who likes to drink and fool around with no strings attached. Once she gets a job aboard the Glorious Fool spaceship, things start to go south — fortunately, there’s always Rupert for her to fantasize about. Fast-paced and over the top, “Fortune’s Pawn” is a great plane or vacation read.
OK, stay with me because this one isn’t recent — in fact, it was first published in 1971. McCaffrey, best known for her science fiction, wrote my hands-down favorite romance novel, featuring Nialla Dunn, who is hiding out from the men who murdered her horse-trainer father. Traveling from horse show to horse show, she encounters Rafe Cleary, the one man who can save her. Included: an amazing sex scene on a haystack after she suffers serious burns in a stable fire. How could that possibly be sexy, you ask? McCaffrey makes it work.
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Danielle McLimore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has worked in book publishing since 2009. She lives with her husband, two sons, and a very misbehaved dog. She proudly supports the Center for Reproductive Rights.