I have a book club over at my website where once a month I select a book, invite people to read it (OK, nag them to read it because I’m dying to talk with people about it) and then host a live chat in which readers can tell me what they think, discuss the cover art, question the perfect fudge recipe (my mother-in-law’s) and generally create festive shenanigans and mayhem about romance novels.

The club, created with All Romance eBooks, started out as a summer thing, but continued due to popular demand because there aren’t that many book clubs that regularly discuss romances. Most often I hear from book-club members who are absolutely craving the opportunity to have their group read a solid, compelling romance, but are afraid to suggest it—or know that, due to the genre, the book will be outright rejected.

Every now and again, I hear of successful conversions or merry introductions to the romance genre from a book club. Sometimes it’s an outstanding favorite like Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase (Avon, 1995), easily one of the best romances ever written. Or it’s a sharp, witty contemporary like Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie (St. Martin's, 2004). Regardless of which book it is, every now and again, the very best romances can turn heads and force people to reconsider “those books,” and perhaps reform their opinion about romances. Often, those books that do the converting are the ones in continual reprint, have an audience that is everlastingly positive about the book and that are, frankly, really freaking good.

What are my enduring romances, the ones I recommend frequently? There are a few, and you’re welcome to try any. I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

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Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie: Candy Tan, who co-founded Smart Bitches with me, was absolutely horrified that I’d never read this book when we started the site in 2005. I am not sure what rock I was living under, but it must have been very comfortable because not having read this book is in violation of many international treaties. No really, it’s that good. It should be required reading for everyone, forever. Bet Me is a wonderful, challenging, hilarious book about two smart but utterly opposite people, with some of the best dialogue you’ll experience. Why are you still sitting there? Go read this book!

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase: If Bet Me holds my torch for Best Contemporary Romance, Lord of Scoundrels holds the same for historical romance. I once convinced a math professor in North Carolina to read this book after he pooh-poohed romances on his website. He was entirely skeptical that he’d enjoy it—and he loved it. So if it’s good enough for a manly man with a Ph.D. in mathematics and a few hundred thousand other romance readers, it’s worth a try. Trust me, once the heroine picks up a gun, you’ll be unable to put the book down.

Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas (St. Martin’s, 2009): Coming up right behind Bet Me is this wonderful, delicious tale that takes every ridiculous romance cliché—secret babies! Billionaires! Billionaires with secret babies!—and throws them into the giant cement mixer of brilliance (aka Kleypas’ brain) and spins out a truly awesome story. As fairy-tale absorbing as this book is, it also made me cry. It contains really big smiles and really big sniffles for the reader, and an ending that is sweet and smooth perfection.

Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling Series (Berkley, 2006-present): Singh’s series is about two species of people, the Psy and the Changelings, and it is in two words dark and absorbing. If you’re a reader who loves adventure, science fiction or a mix of both, this series might appeal to you, because it contains complex histories and terribly painful consequences for screwing up—with happy endings that are earned down to the very last ounce of struggle. The Singh series are the best, “Oh, YEAH?” answer I have given so far to those who think romance is lacking in true world building and creative universes.

Instant Attraction by Jill Shalvis (Brava, 2009): I love this book. I thought the setting in the Sierra Mountains was so real and so longed to experience it for myself, that when I finished the book, I Googled ski lessons. Katie, the heroine, survives a terrible accident and resolves to live life to the fullest, despite being hampered by painful panic attacks as part of her post-traumatic recovery. Cameron, a former world-champion snowboarder, has come home to the family adventure-vacation business in the Sierras, where he meets Katie—and Katie teaches him, the former let’s-helicopter-to-the-mountaintop-and-snowboard-down-for-fun athlete, about true bravery.

Bitten by Kelley Armstrong (Plume, 2001): I was quite resistant to the idea of paranormal romances, with the shape-shifters and the vampires and the whatever else, until I read this book. This novel was the one that taught me what paranormal romance can do, how it can lead a reader to examine truly basic elements of humanity against a supernatural backdrop of uncommon and mythical creatures. It’s also emotionally powerful and creepy, with a sharp, poignant romance between Elena and Clay sharing a plot with a mystery and a reunion and a whole lot of wolves.

What romances are the ones you recommend most often, the ones you wish you could make part of a “Must Read” curriculum among those you know, particularly those who disdain the romance genre? The fun part of building a best-of list is that I know, I absolutely KNOW, that I’m going to remember, like, 17 other books I should have added to this list. So tell me yours so I can kick myself!

 

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.