Listorama: 11 Romance Novels for Clever Ladies
Recently, The Mary Sue--a website I have deeply conflicted feelings about--posted a super-ignorant, click-bait-y piece about romance novels and romance readers.
Rather than rebut the silliness (because what's the point), I thought I'd offer some recommendations for clever ladies looking to try out the genre, want to try a new subgenre of Romance or who want to revisit it after an absence. I'm not an expert, but I've read reasonable widely in the genre and appreciate that it is, in many ways, a deeply feminist field of offerings, particularly in recent years.
The following are 11 smart big-R romances (read: happy ending of a central love story, as defined by the Romance Writers Association) I recommend for Clever Ladies who are interested in the genre. Keep in mind that there's just about something for everyone in this genre, so if there's not something that's up your alley on this list, there's probably something out there--leave a note in the comments and I'll see what I can do.
Molly O'Keefe's Crooked Creek Ranch Series
I couldn't pick just one of Molly's books, so I picked an entire series. She writes profoundly complex women who not only challenge their love interests, but challenge the reader, too. I've written about her novels a lot, so I don't know what else I can do to convince you to pick one up--hell, she even won a RITA for my favorite, Crazy Thing Called Love.
So Tough to Tame by Victoria Dahl (Jackson #3)
Victoria Dahl isn't for everyone, because she's on the more, uh, descriptive side of the contemporary romance spectrum. So, if that's not something you're comfortable with (which is totally fine--I majored in Women's Studies, so not much makes me bat an eye), you may want to try someone else. But if you want to check out a brazenly feminist author who's committed to telling the truth about women's lives, Dahl is a strong pick and she always explores the nature of female friendships, as a nice bonus. So Tough to Tame stands out for me because of the sensitive way she handles both Walker, the male lead's, insecurities about his dyslexia and Charlie, the female lead's, fears about her career. She is very respectful of the two characters' professional choices and of their different types of intelligences. (Walker is very socially intelligent and Charlie very "book smart" and not particularly trusting of her own instincts.) There's a lot to untangle with what Dahl did with this story and these characters, but this is a smart romance with a lot of subversive uses of tropes and archetypes. If you want something a bit lighter, her upcoming novel, Taking the Heat is charming and funny, but with a lot of depth nonetheless.
Thread of Fear by Laura Griffin (Glass Sisters #1)
Laura Griffin's books aren't really my thing anymore, but I love her Glass Sisters novels and the early ones in her current series. What I love about this particularly duet of novels, and the first one especially, is how incredibly competent the two leads are. Fiona is an ace forensic sketch artist and her love interest is an intelligent, dedicated police chief--both are deeply committed to their work and they really get each other's dedication to their careers. This is also a pretty gripping mystery that's almost too much for me (I'm a wimp).
Badlands by Jill Sorenson (Aftershock #3)
Jill Sorensen writes straight-up unabashedly feminist romantic suspense and she's an author you should know. Start by reading her guest post on Brie's awesome blog, Romance Around the Corner. I'd say that the Aftershock series is extremely accessible to non-big R Romance readers (though I think the idea of gateway books is silly, just pick up a book and try it) because the survival and suspense plots are very strong, going hand-in-hand with the central romance. Badlands is distinctive in that the male lead is an ex-convict and has suffered trauma that in Romance is generally reserved for women.
Riveted by Meljean Brook (Iron Seas #3)
I had major issues with the first book in Meljean Brook's steampunk series, but the third one is darn near perfect. (And, fortunately, you don't need to read these novels in order.) This novel explores all sorts of nuanced issues, particularly related to human beings' identities as they relate to our physical bodies. It's a fascinating, sensitive story.
Shadow Bound by Rachel Vincent (Unbound #2)
This is also part of a series, and you can probably read it as a standalone. If paranormal floats your boat, Shadow Bound is one of the most fascinating paranormal-tinged romances I've read. These characters have so much darkness and depth and just surprise you throughout this novel. The world-building isn't too shabby either. Even Sandra, who's definitely not a Romance fan, loved this one.
Trade Me by Courtney Milan
If I were a responsible blogger, I'd point you toward Courtney Milan's historical romances, which are meticulously researched as feature smart, independent ladies who do cool stuff in a time when that was extraordinarily challenging. (Such as The Suffragette Scandal.) However, I have to steer you toward Trade Me, because 1) fake boyfriend trope is the best thing and 2) it really represents what New Adult Romance--a genre I remain cynical about--could grow to be. There's just so much packed into this novel that represents the unique challenges of being a college-age "new adult," the family changes that result and so much more. Milan is a skilled writer and I believe she could be a champ at writing in any segment this broad genre.
I'll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios
I'm not sure if I'll Meet You There was sold as a YA romance or a straight up contemporary teen novel with a strong romantic storyline, but it meets the RWA definition of a romance, so I'm going with it. In this novel, we're presenting with two deeply trouble people who need an escape, and somehow manage to make things work perfectly imperfectly.
Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols
YA romance is a tough one for me--romance is almost ubiquitous as a subplot, but I am often dissatisfied with the execution, but Jennifer Echols never disappointed. I could literally choose any of her novels for teens for this list, but I love Such a Rush the most because the protagonist is so challenging and yet, she still deserves her happy ending. And I think that's something that's important Romance brings to the literary landscape--everyone is deserving of love and happiness.
This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner (Starbound #2)
You probably should read the first book in this series to fully appreciate the second, which has a far more compelling romance and, in many ways, higher stakes adventure than These Broken Stars, but it's not absolutely necessary. This is simply a smart teen science fiction romance and there are massive consequences for the two badass main characters that test their growing relationship in big ways. It's also impressive that two authors can write such fabulous character chemistry.
(Note: I wish my science fiction romance knowledge was stronger--it seems like the genre would have a lot to offer. If you have recommendations, drop a note in the comments!)
One Good Earl Deserves a Lover by Sarah Maclean (The Rule of Scoundrels #2)
Admittedly, this is not my favorite Sarah Maclean novel (and you really can't go wrong with any of her romances), but it's one that will appeal to so many people, I had to include it in this list. Lady Phillipa is an oddball scientist who struggles to fit into London's high society. She's smart and doesn't really care what anyone thinks of her. What I really liked about this story is that she meets her match (in the form of Cross) in someone equal to her intelligence and their nerdy tendencies come together beautifully. They have great chemistry, and their dialogue is off-the-charts fabulous.
(Note: I am not as well-versed in historical romance as I could be. Other authors I know of who are highly respected include Eloisa James, Tessa Dare and Courtney Milan. If you have recommendations, drop a note in the comments.))
Two Bonus Not-Romances
Girl Before a Mirror by Liza Palmer
Not a Romance, but about Romance and its power and misconceptions, this book is about a savvy career woman who attends a romance novel convention has learns a whole lot about herself and the way she perceives other people.
Beyond Heaving Bosoms by Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan
Sarah and Candy founded Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which is the resource for romance readers online. Their book is a fantastic guide to romance novels, and a great resource for people wanting to know more about the genre.
If you'd like more specific recommendations, I'm happy to answer! Leave a note in the comments or tweet me and I'll do my best to help you find a smart romance to match your clever self.