Romance is the most popular fiction genre, accounting for about a third of fiction purchases, but I didn’t know much about romance books until the last couple of years. I tried a few as a teenager, back in the era when publishers rigidly demanded that every story be “pushy rich white guy aggressively pursues beautiful white virgin until she surrenders.” (In fairness, my favorite genres — SF and fantasy — also churned out a lot of sexist nonsense in that era.)
I started checking modern romances out recently, partly because of my obsession with the Popsugar Reading Challenge, and partly because of finding some amazing writers on social media. And WOW. Romance books now have people of color, social issues, women with sex lives, explicit consent, condoms, people with ordinary jobs, hybrids with other genres (mystery/suspense/fantasy/etc), and — oh my heart — LGBTQ+ stories.
And in the current era, I completely get the appeal of happy endings, and of stories where the stakes are “will they kiss” and not “will the world be destroyed.” Here are some romances that won my heart.
Casey McQuiston. Each of her novels has a wonderfully over-the-top premise, a bisexual main character, at least one trans or nonbinary side character, and a lot of hilarious banter. My favorite, Red, White, and Royal Blue, is supposed to come out as a movie this year. In an alternate 2020 with no TFG and no COVID, Alex, the son of the first female president, falls for Henry, a closeted British prince. The story is funny, touching, witty, well plotted, and extremely horny.
One Last Stop is a lesbian romance about an accidental time traveler from the 70’s who’s stuck on the subway in NYC. No, seriously, and it totally works. Jane has also lost most of her memory, so August tries to bring it back with familiar music, smells and tastes, etc. And kissing — for, you know, research.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler is a young adult book set at a Christian school where Chloe (from a two-mom family) feels out of place. Shara, the principal’s daughter, is her picture-perfect rival for valedictorian. Shara kisses two guys and Chloe within 24 hours, then disappears, leaving a series of mysterious notes as clues to find her.
Courtney Milan is a fantastic Twitter follow: funny, thoughtful, and knowledgeable. Under her real name, Heidi Bond, she was an attorney who brought down a powerful judge in a harassment scandal. From there she took up writing romances because, she said, she needed stories about women winning.
Trade Me has an appealing premise. Tina, the daughter of struggling Chinese immigrants, is annoyed by an insensitive remark from her wealthy classmate, Blake. She tells him he wouldn’t last a day in her shoes — so he offers to trade homes and lives for a month.
Hold Me uses the “You’ve Got Mail” trope: Maria and Jay are falling for each other online, not realizing they’ve met in person and it didn’t go well. The twist: Maria is transgender, but refreshingly, that’s not the conflict between them — Jay is bi/pan and it’s not an issue to him, though it’s relevant in other parts of Maria’s life.
Talia Hibbert writes Black British heroines and relatable issues. She’s pretty prolific, but so far I’ve only read Get a Life, Chloe Brown. Chloe is a web designer creating a website for Red, an aspiring artist. The setup is familiar: they don’t get along at first, then playful insults turn into friendship and then more. Chloe’s been isolated by her struggle with chronic pain, and has trouble trusting that anyone will be there for her. Red has his own trust issues, having gotten out of a relationship with a woman who abused him (mostly emotionally, but at least once physically as well). Chloe’s sisters Dani and Eve appear in this book, and presumably Chloe returns the favor in their books.
Alexis Hall has written a lot of queer romances, and so far I’ve only gotten to one, Boyfriend Material. Luc, the son of a notorious rock star, has the tabloids trying to make a scandal out of anything he does. With his job threatened, he needs a fake boyfriend to make him look stable. Oliver, a respectable barrister, needs a fake boyfriend for his parents’ anniversary party (and I was suspicious of this detail long before Luc was). But will they fake break up before then?