Later this year, AAR will ask readers to choose their 100 Top Romances as we’ve done many times over the decades. What does that mean? Are these the best romances ever written? Readers’ personal favorites? A representation of all the genre has to offer? Romances everyone should read?
A series of comments by Jenna got me thinking I’d like to also compile a list of the 100 romances everyone–or at least romance readers–should read before they die. These are the books, to me, that defined and shaped the genre as well as those which tell its history. They should be stellar reads–the sort of books one recommends to others. And if the stories they tell no longer hew to our definition of what’s acceptable to write or value, they must be romance novels you can articulate why they should be on such a list. (Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love would be one such book.)
My list is just that. These are all books I’ve read and given thought to. I’ve chosen just one romance per author. I’m sure as I give this more thought, I’ll come up with more books I feel belong on my list. But, to start, my list would consider these reads:
Black Ice by Anne Stuart, Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale, Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, Julie Anne Long’s What I Did for a Duke, Topaz by Beverly Jenkins, It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin, Fifty Shades of Grey (the series) by E. L. James, The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, Bared to You by Sylvia Day, Slave to Sensation by Nalini Singh, Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas, The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan, A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev, An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole, The Wedding Date by Jasmin Guillory, Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton, A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert, The Wall of Winnipeg and Me by Mariana Zapata, Intercepted by Alexa Martin, Long Shot by Kennedy Ryan, The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne, Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas, The Duke and I by Julia Quinn, The Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran, A Gentleman’s Position by K. J. Charles, A Hunger Like No Other by Kresley Cole, The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook, Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley, Death Angel by Linda Howard, Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews, Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall, Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, Castles by Julie Garwood, Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi, The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss, Naked in Death by J. D. Robb, Knight of a Trillion Stars by Dara Joy, Prisoner of My Desire by Johanna Lindsey, Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers, The Secret Pearl by Mary Balogh, The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith, A Little Light Mischief by Cat Sebastian, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee, Kiss of Steel by Bec McMaster, American Love Story by Adriana Herrera, After Hours by Cara McKenna, The Roommate by Rosie Danan, Mystery Man by Kristen Ashley, Animal Attraction by Jill Shalvis, A Heart of Blood and Ashes by Milla Vane, Uncommon Passion by Anne Calhoun, Beard Science by Penny Reid, Famous by Jenny Holiday, The Devil You Know by Jo Goodman, Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai, The Color of Love by Sandra Kitt, and Off The Edge by Carolyn Crane.
What’s on your list?
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I’ve read through these comments, and it definitely seems like two lists are in order. I have many favorite romances that I would not consider genre-defining or necessary for a “well-rounded romance reader” to have read. I would definitely recommend them to a contemporary reader who holds enlightened attitudes (as in forced seduction = BAD!) or those new to romance in order to hook them into the genre. However, I would also love to see what I would call a Top 100 Romance Classics list that includes titles that probably wouldn’t sit well at all with today’s reader or that might turn a new reader off. I began reading romance back in the days of Alpha-hole heroes (“Whitney My Love”) and bodice-rippers (“Prisoner of My Desire”). I consider a lot of those books to be essential in the evolution of the romance novel, and I would definitely want them on a classics list even if they are problematic. There are a lot of Classics on Top 100 lists that feature tropes that are taboo today. That doesn’t make them unworthy of inclusion on the list, especially since they evoke attitudes and perspectives of a certain time, place or people, right or wrong. My Top 100 Classics would include titles from writers who are giants in the genre as well as titles that typify the best of the various sub-genres and titles that trace the history of the genre, starting all the way back to Austen and Bronte.
I’m not sure what this list that we are currently curating will ultimate include or be (readers favs or genre essentials), but I do hope eventually we end up with a list that I can work through and feel like I’m a very well read romance reader!
For the Classics, there is a part that I would add to the story:
The progression I saw – before even Woodiwiss/Rogers:
There were hugely influential M&B / harlequin books starting from the 50-its or 60-ies- I can only offer a few authors, like Essie Summers, Betty Neels, Mary Burchell, Sophie Weston, … these were the romances available then, and how popular they were. Just tracking when these authors emerged and what they did and how they evolved would be so interesting!
Then, Loveswept- Iris Johansen, Fayrene Preston, Sandra Brown and and…
At that time, people really looked down on those cheap trashy books (they were badly bound, tacky looking and you got them at the tobacconist, not in a bookshop, in Central Europe), so you did not talk much about them, or take them seriously (booksellers would not stock them). But those were my first romances, staring in the late 70-ies, and my mother read them in the late 50-ies (or rather, told me that some of her friends read them, she could not even admit to them, too lowbrow).
These were books with women protagonists, who had agency, and a HEA.
This may be a tangent, since it would take a lot of research and time for me to even find titles, and then quality check and offer specific books for a list..
After reading through the comments, I’m wondering if AAR might do a list of the Top 100 Authors some day? That way, those authors with lots of good books would be recognized whereas in a Top 100 Book list, their books would be competing with one another? For example, how do you pick just one Heyer?
Another list that could be fun would be best series. I find series can be inconsistent or even disappointing, so when an author manages to write a series with consistently high quality books which make sense and come to a satisfactory conclusion, then I’m always very impressed and pleased. For example, Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster series was amazing. At least these could be potential blog topics? ;-)
We did an ask@AAR series question in 2019. That would be a good place to start!
Thanks for sharing this, Dabney! Some good ideas there, for sure.
Dabney and I have been talking about this becuase the best books I’m reading right now (and over the past few years) are series where the romance evolves over several books and the HEA doesn’t happen until the last one. Personally, I would find it hard to add just ONE book in Nicky James’ Valor & Doyle series, for instance, because you need to read all of them to get the full picture of the relationship. Similarly it’s impossible to separate out Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English books – which is an extremely influential series in m/m – because the HEA makes no sense unless you’ve read the previous books – and there are no HFNs along the way.
These same-couple series are very different to those series featuring groups of siblings or friends when each one gets their own book, because there’s an HEA at the end of each one.
Which is my long-winded way of saying I’d be up for a list of best series, especially ones with same-couples and with excellent writing all the way through – I can think of a dozen or so of those from the past few years off the top of my head!
You are very right, the same couple series should not necessarily be classified with the series with a different couple in every book. It would be worth having a discussion/list about each type separately since the story arcs are different and the challenges facing the authors are different. You can write a long series a la Mary Balogh or Bridgerton, and if one book is a clunker, it doesn’t affect the others much. However, in a same couple series, if you mess up one, you may lose a portion of the audience for the rest as they may feel more betrayed or disappointed. On the other hand, I think that the final book in a “same couple” series can be more fulfilling than one in a “different couple” series because you’ve been through more ups and downs and know them better and you’ve waited longer for them to finally, finally have their HEA.
I am the opposite. I like each book to resolve the main couple’s love story. The best example of having your cake and eating it too in series is Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green books. I’m not sure I’ve ever cared as much about knowing how a love story turns out as I did about Lyon’s and Olivia’s. A close second would be Bec McMaster’s Malloryn and Adele!
I can take up to 3 books maximum for a one couple HEA.
All else reminds me of Angelique whose husband kept returning from the dead over 5-8 books, and I just quit.
In crime or similar, where the focus is elsewhere, it can go longer, but at some point: no thanks. I may read Veronica Speedwell once I know from a review that a HEA is firmly there, until then, no. I quit Gabaldon.
I haven’t read either of those series, so I will have to check them out. I really do like both types of series, and read plenty of both. I agree with Liselotte that the ones that go on forever (of either type) are just too much. I can do a longer series with a max of 5 books, but only if it’s really good.
See, I don’t mind wwaiting provided I know it’s (the HEA) coming. And a romance spread over several books gives a lot more space for relationship development. Ultimately, I see a series like Adrien English, which is 5 books, as ONE story, if I’m defining the story as the romance arc.
I’m all for a Top 100 Romance NOVELS – and then maybe a Top (however many) same-couple series later, to highlight the amazing romances around right now that encompass more than a single book.
I’d love to see a list like that. I really enjoy same couple series. I mainly know of m/m ones, but I’d enjoying knowing about good m/f ones, too.
I confess that the only m/f ones i can think of are historical mysteries like Lady Julia (Deanna Raybourn) or lady Darby (Anna Lee Huber) which pretty much concluded the romance arc after 3 or 4 books and became ‘married couple investigates’ books. I lost interest at that point. If anyone has written a series in which we follow the relationship after it’s established while also keeping it as a focal point of the books in m/f as Gregory Ashe has done with Hazard and Somerset in m/m for example, I’d be interrsted to know of it. Some m/f RS series do feature the same couple – Melinda Leigh comes to mind – but the romances tend to be pretty low-key.
Romantic fantasy does this a lot. Holly Black’s incredible series The Folk of Air, Leigh Bardugo’s King of Scars, Bec McMasters’ Dark Court Rising, just to name a few.
I also read all five Adrien English books as a single story. Ok, maybe I can leave out the 3rd book these days, but books 1&2 are a single arc and books 4&5 just crush me. Every. Single. Time.
I’d think you could combine series of both types into a single list, as long as there is a good way to distinguish one-couple story arcs from the others. But I’d love to see picks for series, however the data gets presented.
Even in single couple series the romance arc can be handled quite differently, as you know! Many series the couple has an HFN, or at least a very real connection to be optimistic about, by the end of the first book. I think this works well in Romantic Suspense books, where there is a mystery/suspense plot in each books, maybe with and overarching storyline as well, but also a definite balanced focus on the developing relationship. The Life Lessons series by Kaje Harper comes to mind, or Valor and Doyle (although it takes book 2 for the HFN). I think these types of series can appeal to romance readers who generally like single couple/book. I love seeing a couple after they fall for each other, and the series gives us a good long look at complicated relationships that couldn’t be covered in as much depth in just one book.
Series like Adrien English (and maybe some of Ashe’s series? I’m not sure) feel different because you definitely don’t get the HEA or maybe anything close for most of the series. The Adrien English series is great, but for me, mostly in retrospect, because it was tough to read. (I was going to throw a major fit if there wasn’t some major groveling at the end!!) I guess I wouldn’t recommend AE to potential readers as romances, but a mystery series with a complex (toxic?) relationship at it’s center that finally resolves.
Anyway, I like series that follow one couple as they meet, fall in love and then spend time working through very realistic problems and barriers. The multiple books give so much room for exploring issues and I feel very satisfied that the couple would actually make it long term in real life.
As someone here has already said, what you would recommend to someone will depend on that person’s preferences. I might recommend AE to someone I know likes angsty stories, for instance, although it might not belong on a more general kind of list. BUT if we’re also looking at a list of genre milestones, then AE has to be on there, becuase it’s pretty much the granddady of all m/m romantic suspense/romantic mysteries.
Oh, I totally agree, and I’ve recommended the series before. I also think it would go on the list of genre milestones. Honestly, that’s why I finally read it even though the first time I couldn’t get into it. So many people recommended the series and how it sort of started the m/m RS genre. I wanted to be “in the know!” :-) Not sure its one I’ll reread, although I might reread the last book since I already know the rest. :-D
I’ve been interested in lists of top authors and series as well, Becky. (Just my two cents.;-)
My lists of individual books I’d recommend, authors I’d recommend, and series I’d recommend would be three very different lists indeed. For example, one of my favorite comfort rereads is the rather melancholy AFTER WE FALL by Melanie Harlow. That title is definitely on my list of recommendations for romance novels for newbies. But although Harlow is a prolific writer, and I’ve read a number of her other books, she wouldn’t be on my list of favorite authors—even though she did write one of my all-time favorite romances. It’s not enough for an author to hit it out of the park once, they have to have a solid record of consistently great work, and to me Harlow just doesn’t reach that bar. On the other hand, I don’t think I had a single Claire Kingsley title on my individual book recommendations, but if I were making a list of favorite series, her Miles Family and Bailey Brothers series would definitely make the cut. And I would undoubtedly include Kingsley on the list of my favorite authors: I love her work and she’s pretty much an auto-buy for me, but so much of what’s good about her work is tied up in the interconnectivity of her series (and the overarching storylines they contain) that it’s hard to pick one specific book of hers to recommend to someone new to romance novels. In a similar way, I would certainly put John Wiltshire’s nine-book More Heat Than the Sun series or Cordelia Kingsbridge’s five-book Seven of Spades series on a list of recommended series, but neither Wiltshire nor Kingsbridge would be on my favorite authors list and none of their books would make my favorite individual titles list. All that being said, I think eventually compiling three separate lists would be very valuable—but that’s bound to be a ton of work. Phew!
Exactly!! ;-) My examples would be different, but I couldn’t agree more with the concept.
I’d definitely have Boyfriend Material, The Duke of Shadows, and Flowers from the Storm on there. But I’d probably choose A Seditious Affair and Unfit to Print from KJ Charles (really there would be like 10 books from Charles that would qualify and it’d be hard to choose). Honestly, I’d put a bunch more from Laura Kinsale on there, too. Seize the Fire and For My Lady’s Heart definitely. I’d add a Judy Cuevas (probably Bliss) and maybe To Love and To Cherish or Wild at Heart from Patricia Gaffney. I think I’d also add Peter Cabot Gets Lost from Cat Sebastian. Carla Kelly had a lot of good ones, too – maybe Reforming Lord Ragsdale or Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand.
I think Charlie Adhara is also crafting really well-written romances (like almost faultless) so I’d put one or two by her on there, too.
For the classics – I’d have Emma, Persuasion and Pride & Prejudice by Austen, Maurice and A Room with a View by E.M Forster, and of course Jane Eyre. There’d have to be a Georgette Heyer on there, too, because she’s so influential in romance. Maybe The Talisman Ring, I remember liking that one a lot.
It is very hard if you limit the list to one book per author.
I’d add Passion by Lisa Valdez too.
Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey is my top book in her oeuvre. Reforming Lord Ragsdale is fun while not being superficial, but it does not have the emotional or historical complexity that The Wedding Journey does.
For historical importance and influence upon later authors, I advocate these 3 authors who started publishing in the late 1980s:
Judith McNaught wrote Whitney, My Love, which has been widely criticized over the years for a childish heroine and a scene where the hero spanks the heroine (not in a sexy way). However, the author was definitely revered by other authors of that time and after. Her book Kingdom of Dreams is one of my favorite medievals and her contemporary Paradise was much admired when it came out, featuring a plot line of a rough-and-scramble man making it rich and going after the unattainable rich girl. Interestingly, she only ever wrote a bit over a dozen books then kind of disappeared.
Julie Garwood was very prolific over the late 1980s and 1990s and continues to publish today (she changed from historicals to contemporary/suspense). Back then, she specialized in the quirky heroine. You have her book Castles on your list but I would advocate for one of her earliest books The Lion’s Lady, where the heroine was being presented as aristocracy in England but secretly grew up amongst a Native American tribe (it was funny).
Jude Deveraux might be most famous for A Knight in Shining Armor, which was a very popular time travel romance. She also wrote many, many books featuring 2 families – the Montgomerys and the Taggarts – across multiple generations from medieval times to contemporary.
Those are all great choices and I LOVE that you’ve explained why. Thank you.
I cut my teeth on those three authors, and I still have some of the original print copies I picked up in my early twenties!
I have all of Judith McNaught’s books in paperback and many of Julie Garwood and Jude Deveraux – they are so old that they look a big fragile!
Love the question and conversation, Dabney!
If I look at authors (as opposed to specific titles) on your list, I’d agree with many of them. I’d add the following for their influence on the genre as a whole:
Suzanne Brockmann – because she was the first mainstream m/f romance writer to include a gay character/storyline into her cast of alpha male characters.
Josh Lanyon – her Adrien English series is a widely-acclaimed, “early” m/m romance.
Charlaine Harris – her Dead Until Dark was a cross-over title/series for many readers
from paranormal to romance and vice versa.
Patricia Briggs – Mercy Thompson (see Charlaine Harris above). Not as strong an HFN as Dead Until Dark in the first book in the series, but over the course of the series . . .
Lois McMaster Bujold – Cordelia’s Honor as how to do enemies-to-lovers trope, as well as romantic sci/fi.
Names that are missing from your list that others would probably argue belong on a list of “genre defining” authors:
Mary Jo Putney
Diana Gabaldon – Outlander
Nora Roberts – for sheer volume
Danielle Steel – for even more volume
Debbie Macomber (or my personal preference Robyn Carr) – for small town settings
Did SEP to have the first big sports romance hit with It Had To Be You? If yes, could one argue that Rachel Gibson’s See Jane Score was a better-balanced power dynamic “2nd generation” of sports romances? (I’m not a huge sports romance reader (at least not m/f) so am not sure if there was someone(s) else who “created” the trope/subgenre).
And while I agree that James’ FSoG had a huge “consumer awareness” and financial impact, and therefore should be on the list no matter how poorly written; I’d qualify it with a recommendation for Alexis Hall’s How to Bang a Billionaire series as an example of how to better write that trope.
Completely agree with your influential author choices.
Re: Suzanne Brockmann – I know that many have soured on her due to her personal views and a feeling that she pushes her agenda on readers in her books. However, I do agree that she was extremely influential. Not only did she introduce gay storylines but her books brought popularity to military heroes and suspense storylines.
Re: Charlaine Harris – I wouldn’t call her books romances as I don’t think they fit the genre definition but I do agree there were strong romantic elements. In the Sookie Stackhouse books, Sookie had multiple romantic partners over the course of the series. I think the biggest influence of these books was that they were made into the True Blood TV series, which brought attention to paranormal romance.
Re: Charlaine Harris. I could easily be wrong about this, but my memory is that I read the second book in the series because I was hoping for more than the HFN ending of Book 1. But you are correct, the rest of the series is all over the map relationship wise. In doing some research, perhaps the genesis of the paranormal subgenre belongs to Christine Feehan, with Dark Prince. The author’s website says it was a finalist here at AAR for best romance of 1999, as well as winner of best new author in 1999. Harris’ Dead Until Dark wasn’t published until 2001. Off to see if I can corroborate any of that elsewhere here on the AAR site . . .
Not sure of specifics but I do know that around 1999 or 2000 there was an active “movement” with the online community to encourage more paranormal romances. Complete with a couple of organizations being formed. Then at the 2001 Celebrate Romance conference everyone was already raving about Christine Feehan’s Carpathians.
Hey, Dabney, did you hear or read this NPR article about romance books being so popular, more than other genres, during this time of book sales tanking?
I did. We are the bomb!
I just looked at a list I compiled a couple years ago of my most-reread books ( http://www.ccrsdodona.org/markmuse/reading/mostread.html ) to see if I think any of them might belong on a best list. Most of them reflect my bias for romances with humor. Thinking about tropes, I was struck by something I never noticed before.
Several of my top favorites are reformed rake stories:
A Rake’s Reform by Holbrook, Cindy
Black Sheep by Heyer, Georgette
The Mad Miss Mathley by Martin, Michelle
Lord Sayer’s Ghost by Holbrook, Cindy
Christmas Wishes by Metzger, Barbara
These Old Shades by Heyer, Georgette
Devil’s Cub by Heyer, Georgette
The Actress & the Marquis by Holbrook, Cindy
Frederica by Heyer, Georgette
Venetia by Heyer, Georgette
A Beauty & the Beast story:
Ravished by Quick, Amanda
A competent heroine story:
Restoree by McCaffrey, Anne
I realized I should probably explain my label for Restoree. It was published as Science Fiction in 1967. I read years ago that one of the reasons McCaffrey wrote it was as a reaction/counter to stories with TSTL / helpless / fainting / constantly-in-need-of-rescue heroines. Elsewhere I read the label “competent man” as a description of many Heinlein heroes. This is where my “competent heroine” label came from, as a contrast to helpless or feisty or clumsy or disaster-prone or downtrodden or self-sacrificing or nurturing or the many other types of heroines in romances.
Many of Heyer’s books would vie for my “Best of” list and I reread them regularly, but one I rarely see mentioned is The Talisman Ring. It’s a funny, action-packed dual love story that I find just as delightful on every reread.
Yes, The Talisman Ring is a lot of fun. I’ve read it 9 times, which puts it well ahead of several other Heyer books.
I don’t know where The Unknown Ajax stands with Heyer readers in general, but I’ve read it 13 times. Much of humor depends on knowing that Hugo is shamming.
The Reluctant Widow is two completely different books depending on how you interpret the heroine, but I’ve read it 7 times since it is quite funny if you read her as facetious or ironic or sarcastic.
That’s a great way to look at her works! The genius of Heyer is how well these stories stand up to repeated readings, and how you can experience them differently at different times. I think listening vs reading can also change the impact, because the narrator is going to bring their own slant to the characters through the voices and mannerisms.
I also love The Unknown Ajax and A Quiet Gentleman, even though they are sometimes overlooked in a “best of Georgette Heyer” discussion.
I think there’s a lot of value in a list of what books made the romance genre what it is today. But I would argue that the audience for that list is scholars and others who want to understand it, not new readers. A reader new to romance is better served by a list of favorites, which can show romance tropes as they’ve evolved and broadened. I’d put Woodiwiss and Rogers on a list of Most Influential,, because they were. But I wouldn’t require anyone to read them to appreciate romance as it is today. But if someone familiar with the genre wanted to explore its roots, I’d recommend:
Pride and Prejudice Austen
The Flame and the Flower Woodiwiss
Sweet Savage Love Rogers
A Knight in Shining Armor Deveraux
Whitney My Love McNaught
Lord of Scoundrels Chase
Simple Jess Morsi
The first book in Jo Beverley’s Malloren series
The first book in JR Ward’s series
Something by Bertrice Small
The Duke and I Julia Quinn
Flowers From the Storm, Kinsale
The Color of Love Sandra Kitt
Honest Illusions Nora Roberts
The Rake and the Reformer Putney
Loveswept;s Delaney series Hooper, Johansen, Preston(?)
Kleypas Dreaming of You
Gone Too Far Suzanne Brockmann
The Secret Pearl Balogh
Libby’s London Merchant Kelly
Magic Bites Andrews
Beverly Jenkins first book
Naked in Death Robb
Redeeming Love Rivers
It Had to be You Phillips
Guinevere Jones series Krentz/Castle
Jennifer Crusie Bet Me
I haven’t read all of these books and there are definitely subgenres I’m not familiar enough with to know the first book that started a branch that has lasted..I think it’s too early to tell if anything published in the last five years will be influential, though I certainly would include a fair amount on a favorites list
Yes, that would work well for me, too. And make a lot of sense to me.
Probably, one would need to add an info about what this books started off, or which subgenre it started. I am familiar with them all, so I can infer, but a new reader might need that additional info.
And if you’d like to offer suggestions for books for the Top Best 100 Romances Ever Written, I’d love to see them!
Would you consider adding a column where the submitter briefly gives their reason for including the book?
Here’s a mixture of personal favourites that I think were influential on what has followed. Starting with Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte along with Louise May Alcott in the 19th century followed by E.M. Hull going into the early 20th. Going forward in time, Georgette Heyer and then Barbara Cartland and others of that late 50s/early 60s period. For sure Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss follow on. Charlotte Lamb, Anne Mather, Mary Burchell (and others) from the M&B stable and then we can look at the more recent authors others here have mentioned. For me personally, Gwen Bristow had an influence on my own choices and also the prolific Betty Neels as she became one of the greatest romance comfort reads I can think of and I think many share this feeling. For sheer influence, perhaps Margaret Mitchell should also get a mention. I won’t be around in 25 years but it would be interesting to see what evolves out of WFH and internet dating where personal contact seems to be more and more restricted, often quite voluntarily, and more and more young and not-so-young continue to live in their childhood bedrooms with Mum providing personal service and Dad paying for it.
PS – I know that 50SoG is “marmite” and some loathed it but I agree with Dabney that it has been extremely influential; young boys these days lap up internet porn so perhaps this is the female version of it. Personally, I read it as a long and extended joke and found it funny and tongue in cheek and NOT to be taken seriously in any way by a grown-up.
Elaine, I only saw your post after writing mine above.
Yes to M&B being huge in the development of romance, and in my personal romance journey.
Though I never loved Betty Neels ;-)
I will have to think who I loved: Carol Marinelli, Anne Mather, Sharon Kendrick…
OK–so reading the comments, which I love, has given me more ideas. (Always a bad thing….)
There seem to be three kinds of lists we’re talking about.
One kind is the 100 BEST romances ever written according to our readers. That list is the AAR Top 100 List.
The second is the 100 BEST romances ever written according to the reviewers, the critics here at AAR.We’ve never compiled this list in my tenure at AAR. I have been keeping track of all the books our reviewers choose for the BEST of AAR each year–I started doing that some years ago. It has 407 books on it.
The third is the most seminal or influential romances ever read. That is what I was looking for, initially, when I thought about this column.
There is tons of overlap between the lists and everyone has a strong opinion about what should be on each list! And I’m not sure there’s one list to rule them all that would include the very best AND the most influential that readers and critics would both pick. But it sure would be fun to try at some point!
I’m enjoying reading all your perspectives and learning about books that have called to you. I feel as though we are having a really interesting conversation!
I think we have to consider the purpose of the list: if the intention is to compile a list of the most important/seminal* romances, then yes, I think we’d have to include a few bodice-rippers (my choice would be SWEET SAVAGE LOVE, but I’m sure others would select a different title). And, since nothing occurs in a vacuum, we’d also have to include some social context to explain why those types of romances became so popular in the 1970s & 1980s. (Plus, as I think someone pointed out below, a lot of those books were set in the antebellum south, and many of them reflect racial attitudes that are rage-inducing today.) I think that’s the list for an as-yet-unwritten doctoral dissertation in Cultural or Women’s Studies. On the other hand, if the purpose of the list is to provide a starting place for readers who are new to romance, I wouldn’t want to recommend any bodice-ripper to a romance-reading newbie. I can’t imagine any of those young women on Book-Tok wanting to read or promote books full of rapey heroes (although they seem to like promoting books featuring “heroes” who need to be kicked to the curb and swept up with the trash, imho—but that’s a whole other discussion). Oh well, TL;DR: I’m loving the discussion here, but I think we need at least two lists: one for academic/cultural purposes and one for reading recommendations in the here & now.
*By the way, the word “seminal” derives from the word “semen”, a fact I find incredibly amusing in a discussion of romance novels.
That’s why I used it. Always up for the cheap giggle!
OK, unpopular opinion here:
Even books that showcase times or attitudes we dislike can still be worth reading. I think everyone should read Gone with the Wind in order to understand the myth of the Lost Cause. Same with Prisoner of My Desire–those bodice rippers were so giant for a reason and I think it’s interesting to talk about why.
I don’t disagree that certain books would still be valuable to read for academic/social purposes, (As an aside, my daughter has a friend who is working on a Ph.D. in American History, her focus is on how racial attitudes were reflected in both antebellum and postbellum literature, and every time she posts reviews about those books on GoodReads, she has to preface with a comment that she is reading the book for academic reasons not because she agrees with the beliefs contained therein.) However, if the list is being compiled for the reading enjoyment of newcomers to romance, I’m unconvinced that it needs to include bodice-rippers full of “rapey”/“unknowable” heroes and awful racial attitudes.
I’ll just say that those books continue to sell big time. And modern versions of them are all over the best seller Kindle list at Amazon. I’m personally not convinced that many readers aren’t still looking for stories with super alpha men in the sack.
Thank you for clarifying, Dabney. I think titling the third list the “The Most Influential Romance Novels” is very helpful in making clear the goal of the list you want us to consider. You want books which changed the course of romance novels in some way. For me, it would be wonderful to read an essay where you (or someone else) listed your top 10 and explained why you feel each book was influential. What impact did it have and on whom? How were romance publishing or authors or readers different after that book came along? It is one thing to tell me something was influential, but the interesting part is why or how it was influential. I would love reading something like that!
Here’s the thing, they can be seminal and influential and still not be what I’d recommend to new readers. Because recommendations for new readers have to be based in part on what their interests are. And that can be really hit and miss at first because those don’t always line up with what they like in romances. Just throwing that out there.
However, if the aim is to document the history of romance novels, then go for it. Just thinking out loud here, but can you really put a number goals on that list? Shouldn’t it just be whatever many it is?
Well, since we are just having fun here, I think we can do whatever we want!
I guess I think there are recs for specific people but then there are also lists that are useful for everyone.
As for a number, it reads like everyone likes the 100 ________ lists, but it’s just a number not a hard goal.
I am having trouble conceiving of this list because I don’t like the word “should” and I always cringe at lists of the “100 (or 10 or 20) Things You Should Read/Do Before You Die.”
If I were to recommend romance books for someone to read who is new to romance and who wants to get a feel for the best of what’s out there (rather than the history of the genre,) then I would only recommend books I thought were well-written and enjoyable. I would not recommend something like Sweet Savage Love or 50 Shades of Grey because I would not want them to think that romance is garbage, as I did for many years.
Instead, if I had the knowledge, I would create a list with different subgenres, tropes, authors, eras, etc. I would include all kinds of protagonists, including POC and LGBTQ+, and stories taking place in different countries and cultures. I would include everything from inspy to erotic. I would want a potential reader to say, “Wow! I never knew how rich and diverse romance can be. Thank you for introducing me to all this goodness.”
I think the AAR’s Top 100 does this to a large extent, although it is not as curated. When I started reading romance a few years ago, I used the Top 100 quite a bit and found it very helpful, and I really appreciated it.
That list is reader generated which is great.
I was thinking about a list that works like this one but for romance.
Back in the day when we had more people on the team, we had the Special Title Listings, which were the sorts of list you describe, books that used certain tropes or were from the various sub-genres of romance – you can still find them at the Vox Populi tab – but we haven’t been able to update them for many years because we no longer have the manpower.
Aren’t tags meant to supplant those lists? The nice thing about using tagging is that one can click to the reviews to see if a book has appeal. Although I wish the tag results were sorted based on review grades, from better to less. (I think now results are listed in the order in which a book was tagged from most recent to least.)
With our new Power Search, you can sort tags by grades. That little box at the top right that says RECENT is a pull down and you can sort by grade.
I’d have to put a Georgette Heyer title on there, which one I’m not 100% sure, but I think if anyone had an impact on future writers, it’s Heyer! She’s the queen of the Regency romance. But I’d go back farther and say Austen’s works, especially Pride and Prejudice, continues to be hugely influential. Plus they are actually wonderful books that have held up over time.
The title of the post said romance you would recommend every romance reader should read, which to me is something different than listing books that have had a historical impact on, or have defined, the genre. That feels like two different, if overlapping, lists.
One is really a historical development of the genre list, and one is a “must read” list.
I once watched an MTV show about the most influential songs in the development of rock/pop music. It was eye-opening because more than a few of the songs were there not because they were good or even memorable, but because something about the music had an impact on future artists, like the first time someone did that drum beat, or the used that vocal method, etc. So some of the bodice rippers might make the “books that changed/defined/influenced a genre, but they aren’t necessarily the same thing as “must reads” for every romance readers.
I think Heyer and Austen are definitely on the list.
There are also book that changed things for writers but not so obviously for readers. It’s fun to think about all the options.
Try as I might—and despite the boatload of bodice-rippers I consumed from the mid-1970s through the late-1980s—I can’t come up with a single legitimate, non-academic reason to include a book like SWEET SAVAGE LOVE on a list of must-read romances. If a person is looking at romances through a cultural lens, then perhaps they might give bodice-rippers a go (as the first sexually-explicit books primarily written by, for, and about women), but I think for a person new to the romance genre, rather than go the chronological/historical route, I’d try to come up with a good representative example of the various tropes, themes, sub-genres, gender pairings, etc. For example, HEATED RIVALRY is a good example of an m/m sports romance; FULL MOUNTIE is a good example of a poly-am/ménage romance; HER FAVORITE RIVAL is a good example of a workplace rivalry romance, etc. I’d also try to limit each author to one single title (although with some of my favorite authors, that would be hard).
But those books are integral to understanding the history of romance. I’m not just looking for the best versions of different genres, but the books that shaped how the genre was read and defined. For me, that list has to have Sweet Savage Love and The Wolf and the Dove.
The rules for submissions will definitely depend on what the final purpose of the list is. If you are looking for most influential, I would have trouble voting since I know very little about how much influence most books had. Same for trend starters (first of a type or sub-genre). If it is best of a type, I would have opinions. Whatever the final intent, I would NOT limit votes or results to one book per author. That tends to keep authors with large bodies of work out of the final results by spreading votes among their works. If someone thinks 10 books by Heyer should be listed, let them vote that way. That gives a better chance of at least one of them having enough votes to be in the final results, since there will be much more overlap in top-ten votes than in best votes for an author.
Also, if “should read” is in fact the intent, I would not include influential but badly written books. That would be a separate list.
This is for fun so I think we can have a Top 100 Romances–the best we think the genre has to offer–and a list of books that shaped and defined romance. Also, this isn’t a voting list. This is a curated list–I’m taking input from readers and reviewers and then will publish that list which isn’t definitive or even important but maybe just interesting to think about.
You know I actually don’t like lists like this because usually the authors I like are never on them. But if I was going to do one, the books would be listed according to original copyright date. Especially if we’re looking to showcase the books that “defined and shaped the genre” because otherwise there is no context.
And to be honest, 100 books from the romance genre is barely dipping a toe into showing the depth of things. There are just so many to choose from.
I had planned to list the books in copyright order! #greatminds
I think to create such a list you should clearly define criteria for inclusion. Definitely character development, plot, how is the resolution conclude. Writing style, accuracy, etc. Choice should be necessarily be based on popularity but possible longevity. For instance who first wrote from the male point of view. It may have been Jayne Anne Krentz.
I have read a lot of books that you suggested and for the most part agree. However, I would strongly reject Fifty Shades of Grey a supposedly derivative work and sloppily written. I would swap A Devil in Winter for Dreaming of you because it does not portray the aristocracy. Magic Bites is by Ilona Andrews; Kate Daniels is the series. Penny Reed really. Her books seem pretty pedestrian to me.
Well, I’d argue there is no more influential book in how the world sees romance than 50SoG, so for me, it makes sense to keep it on the list. Devil in Winter is widely known as one of the greatest redemption love stories and is often cited as such. This list isn’t the BEST romances ever written but rather ones that have defined and shaped the genre.
I have made the Kate Daniels correction. Thanks!
But you do say:
And while it may have shaped the genre, 50 Shades is neither stellar nor something I’d recommend to someone I wanted to continue being friends with. I get what you’re saying about how it offers insight in to what people are reading/want to read, and I also understand that I am not its target audience. But seeing it on a list of “top” romances would probably make me discount the list entirely, tbh. (Unless it was a list of best sellers).
The trilogy has a 4.8 rating on Amazon from 46K readers. I think it’s many people thought it was fabulous. I’ve always hated the idea that best sellers can’t be stellar. We have reviews here where one review loathed a book and another thought it was a DIK.
There are lots of reasons we read books and recommend them to others. It may be because they can change your world view or show you something you didn’t already know or be a super fun experience.
This is not a list of the greatest–in terms of quality–romances ever written. I’d be very suspicious of THAT list!
I was thinking about a list that encapsulated romance, books that changed the genre, changed its readers, but, really, everyone has their own sense of what that list would be.
And that’s the point. One of the things I love about romance is that it isn’t a gate keeping genre–the main reason the genre exists is to bring people pleasure.
So, I’m happy to hear books others would chose and WHY. I can learn from that which is my favorite thing. <3
I’ve always hated the idea that best sellers can’t be stellar
I never said they couldn’t. But I think our discussion is a good illustration of what’s being said about the need to define the parameters if the list. Because when you said “stellar” I thought you meant “exceptional” or “outstanding” quality, because that’s how I define that word.
I also would never recommend people read 50 Shades of Grey. It might have been influential, but it’s far from “stellar” either in content or writing quality.
And see I was thrilled I read it because by doing so I learned about what calls to so many. It’s not my jam but it fascinates me that it was SO SO SO many people’s. I feel the same was currently about Colleen Hoover.
I was once stuck working in a tiny place in the High Arctic without anything to read. I spent quite a bit of time staring out of the window. Then a coworker lent me 50 Shades.
Staring out of the window wasn’t so bad.
I’d definitely go with almost all of Manjari’s suggestions – I haven’t read Red White &Blue though so can’t speak as to the quality of it. For KJ Charles, I’d swap out A Seditious Affair for A Gentleman’s Position – it’s easily the best of that series and is a masterclass in how to do historical romance right. But then most of KJC’s historicals are! And I’d swap Sally Malcolm’s King’s Man for Perfect Day; another case of HR that’s perfectly done. I might also go for Glitterland over Boyfriend Material, but I love them both so I’d probably change my mind on a daily basis!
I’ll have to think about this some more – I’m hopeless at making choices like this.
I had a hard time deciding between Glitterland and Boyfriend Material. I picked Boyfriend Material because I think it’s a book that reached more non m/m readers than Glitterland. But Glitterland is amazing–it was the first m/m book I read and I think that’s true for many.
I think it may also depend on what the list is supposed to be for.- as you’ve said in your opening sentence (and was recently discussed on another post here) – Boyfriend Material will sit far more comfortably for some than Glitterland does because it’s more “rom-commy” in tone. I’m not sure I’ve been reading romance long enough to talk about which books have shaped the genre!
They each were important in their own way, I think. There is no right or wrong list–but it’s interesting to think about.
Some of the books on my list were my personal favorites by the author rather than what was most influential to the romance reading community. I love Perfect Day for a beautiful example of a second chance romance and I like its really extended happy ending. However, King’s Man is a great example of M/M HR.
Red, White & Royal Blue is NA and I’m not sure you like that subgenre. One problem with the book is that although highly intelligent, one of the lead characters (Alex) is often quite clueless and I think that might annoy some readers (I found it funny). However, a lot of the language is quite lovely. The leads are apart for a lot of the story and there are e-mails that they write to each other that are really romantic. The book definitely generated a lot of buzz (29,000 reviews on Amazon) and it’s a pairing that I don’t think I have ever seen (First Son of the United States and Prince of the UK).
I suspect that the most problematic thing for ME would be the inclusion of a British Royal. There are so many things they either can’t or don’t (or won’t) do and it’s hard to get that right in the context of a romance, regardless of the ages of the characters.
I didn’t notice anything untoward but as an American, I probably wouldn’t realize all of the problems. I do find that I have to be willing to suspend some disbelief with most romances featuring any type of royal. I think it depends on what you can tolerate. I work in the medical field and I rarely read doctor romances or watch doctor shows because I can’t handle the inaccuracies!
I love so many of the books you have listed. I would add these for M/M romances:
Rule Breaker by Lily Morton
Heated Rivalry by Rachel Reid
Powder & Pavlova by Jay Hogan
The Missing Pieces series by N.R. Walker
Perfect Day by Sally Malcolm
Him by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Madison Square Murders by C.S. Poe
Temporary Partner by Nicky James
And these for M/F romances:
The Work of Art by Mimi Matthews
Ravishing the Heiress by Sherry Thomas
A Wicked Kind of Husband by Mia Vincy
Managed by Kristen Callihan
Only When It’s Us by Chloe Liese
I was going for one per author and picked Almost a Husband which I think is more influential than Ravishing the Heiress. Is there a reason you would pick on over the other?
I’ve been a romance reader for decades but I still don’t feel that I am the best judge of what has been influential over the years. However, you mentioned both influential books but also books that every romance reader should read so I considered:
-A key book (either early work or one of their best) by a romance author that has been influential to readers and/or to other authors
-A book that was great example of a romance trope
-A high quality book that generated reader buzz
I only picked one book per author and for Sherry Thomas, I think one of her best is Ravishing the Heiress, which is a really good example of marriage of convenience stories.
I also considered The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood. It didn’t start the trend of STEM heroines but it generated a huge amount of reader buzz. It has over 55,000 reviews on Amazon! However, I had some quibbles about the heroine of the book and didn’t think it had quite the quality of the other books I listed.
If I was going to pick more than one per author, I would have included Kristen Callihan’s Winterblaze and Evernight, both just wonderful paranormal novels with strong heroines. However, Managed is my favorite book by this author and I think it was one of the earlier rock band novels where the hero is the band manager.
I love this!! Thank you!
I love reading vintage mysteries because I can trace the development of the genre in them. I often find a surprisingly modern feel in something written a century ago (E C Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case from 1913 is a good example). And the quality of the prose is usually better than modern mystery bestsellers. Plus I love the social history and I feel nostalgia for a time I never knew.
But I can’t think of much in the romance genre that I would urge a newbie romance reader to try for the purpose of educating themselves. Romance taste is so individual and popular books date so quickly. I can come up with a list of books I’ve loved, but I don’t think they were genre-shaping; they just included elements that appealed to me and were really satisfying reads. Satisfying at the time, anyway; my own tastes have evolved pretty quickly.
I think it would be just as educational (and more fun) to read a contemporary review of each of the 100 romances that shaped the genre, to see what the reactions were when each book was first released.
I will do that–and almost all the reviews here have links to review.
Yeah, I’d be much more interested in a decade by decade sampling than a flat list of 100. Year by year would probably be difficult but I suppose it could be done. Information (links?) on contemporary reviews would be great, too, although some of the ones from the early 1900s might not even have them to find. Much less be findable if the ever existed.