This holiday season I wanted to create a list composed exclusively of recent romantic desert island keepers — stress-relieving escapes at the intersection of creative passion and mass appeal.
I curated this selection by chatting with some of the most fervent aficionados and advocates in the genre, leveraging their recommendations to broaden my horizons throughout the year. The result is a roundup of books I raved about to friends when no one else was listening, and some of the best examples of what romance readers are loving most about the genre now. They reflect some of the diversity of the genre, and a range of different character backgrounds, moods, and desires, from comforting sweetness to taboo. Each selection scratches a distinctive emotional or mental itch. And each one is a banger.
THE ART OF SCANDAL by Regina Black
A sexy, soapy alternative to distressingly true life political drama, this is “Real Housewives of the Potomac” meets “Scandal,” and more than one romance author’s favorite romance of the year. In this angsty, DC-based scenario, Rachel Abbott, a politician’s wife who’s sick of the life she’s been living, finds out that her wealthy, formerly good-guy husband Matt has been flagrantly cheating. Feeling sidelined and depressed but financially trapped with a daughter in college to think of, Rachel stays put, agreeing to continue acting the perfect public partner to her ambitious hubby while buying time and trying to find her place in the world. The problem is that she can’t help falling for the promising and empathetic Nathan, a young, local artist with his own secrets and baggage. The story and characters are multi-layered and the writing is juicy, with a killer opening line too scandalous to print.
WE COULD BE SO GOOD by Cat Sebastian
For fans of old New York stories and anyone who’s ever crushed on their bff. Sebastian is the master of slow-burning sizzle with a realistic touch. In this sweet and sexy mid-20th century historical, Andy Fleming is the privileged scion of the New York newspaper company that employs hard-working, working-class Nick. Unlike the viperous offspring in HBO’s media empire drama “Succession,” Andy has no competition and he’s ambivalent at best about being his father’s designated heir. But he agrees to spend a year learning the newsroom ropes nonetheless. Smart and rough around the edges, Nick becomes Andy’s work guide, best friend, and roommate. The attraction that sparks from this pair is the happiest bonus.
THE TRUE LOVE EXPERIMENT by Christina Lauren
Burned out on “The Bachelorette”? Can’t get enough of Bravo? This story of co-workers fighting their attraction and falling in love behind the scenes of a kinder, gentler reality TV dating show is for you. Felicity Chen (a.k.a. “Fizzy”), a romance novelist burned out on both writing and dating, gets an opportunity she can’t refuse to be the next singleton looking for love on her own television show, with creative control over the production. But instead of connecting with the cadre of leading men she helped to pick using insights from her friend’s scientific dating algorithm (The Soulmate Equation), Fizzy’s heart beats only for her off-limits, reality TV hating documentary filmmaker producer. This is a classic contemporary office romance in a new setting — two gently bruised, jaded grown-ups find new faith in love through each other.
TWISTED LIES by Ana Huang
With all the psychological drama, heat, and moral conflict that dark romance is known for, the popular Twisted series booted me out of my comfort zone. The final and maybe best installment is a kind of mashup of “You” and “McMafia” in which a Gen Z social influencer under pressure makes a deal with the devil and finds a happy ending. A business opportunity and a threat from the past thrusts Stella Alonso into the unlikeliest harbor, with charming and dangerous Christian Harper, Mr. “suits and whiskey.” An “American Psycho”-style control freak, Christian gets hostile when others touch what’s his, including sweet Stella, who chose his high security building for a reason. Huang treads the line between romantic obsession and toxicity like a boss.
SOMETHING WILD & WONDERFUL by Anita Kelly
This tender romance about finding love on the Pacific Crest Trail is transportive, high-altitude inspiration. Hiking the 2,500-mile-long PCT is an emotionally and physically taxing commitment that people tackle for a host of reasons. Alexei Lebedev and Ben Caravalho have divergent goals when their paths converge. Exuberant, out-and-proud Ben needs a break after a string of bad relationships; for Alexei, brokenhearted after coming out as gay to his conservative parents, it’s a solitary transformational journey, “a chance to say goodbye to his old life.” Following a few chance run-ins, they become hiking partners, a situation that grows complicated with their attraction. Their friendship grows exquisitely deeper and more romantic the further they plunge in the wild and wonderful trek.
STARS IN YOUR EYES by Kacen Callender
The book to read when you crave big challenges, deep character growth, and great writing. Callender was already an acclaimed writer of children’s books and YA novels, including National Book Award winner “King and the Dragonflies” and Stonewall honoree “Felix Ever After.” Now, the St. Thomas-born author’s adult romance debut combines some of the frothiest of romance tropes with an exploration of how trauma shapes how we give and receive love and healing. Mattie is a vulnerable, cocker spaniel-like sweetheart who struggles with shame and insecurity; Logan is a hellraiser who took his painful history and spit anger in every direction. Both sweet and devastating, this Hollywood romance between two complicated and radically different Black actors who fake-date to change the narrative surrounding their film is something spectacular.
ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld
For Janeites and sketch comedy lovers who want a peek behind the curtain. Like Sittenfeld’s “Prep,” “Romantic Comedy” is smart, sophisticated fun. Though more of a dramedy than its title would indicate, it delivers a host of pleasures: escapism, schadenfreude, a winning underdog tale, sharp social critique, and a hard-earned happy ending. Like oil and vodka, like Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande, Sally and Noah are a strange combination. She’s a writer for an “SNL”-like sketch comedy show, and he’s a heartthrob pop music singer-songwriter sensation. They’re also great for each other, and their journey toward that realization is suitably circuitous and thoroughly rewarding.
GLITTERLAND by Alexis Hall
For snarky Anglophiles who expect big laughs from their romcoms, and fans of “Red, White, and Royal Blue.” Hall’s first published romance — one of the romance star author’s most poignant and hilarious — received a proper glow-up for its 10th anniversary reissue this year. The new, expanded edition features author annotations, bonus scenes, and an intimate letter from Hall on the experience of writing this instant genre classic. But the real star remains the finely written story of opposites attracting. Ash Winters, a posh depressive and Oxford-educated writer, meets Darian Taylor, a flashy, working-class aspiring model with big dreams. Like its big-haired love interest, “Glitterland” is ridiculous and extravagant, but there is also tenderness and sensitivity beneath the laugh-out-loud antics. Five stars in the glitter-verse. (Also recommended: Hall’s “10 Things That Never Happened,” a shaggy enemies-to-lovers riff on the holiday romcom, about a store manager who fakes amnesia to save his store from the corporate chopping block and falls for his grumpy Scrooge-like boss.
THE SECRET LIVES OF COUNTRY GENTLEMEN by K.J. Charles
British author and editor K.J. Charles has mastered the art of blending sexy intrigue and adventure. Like a queer “Poldark” — a high-heat epic set in England’s coastal hinterlands — a law clerk with noble roots and a charismatic outlaw spend one blissful, illicit week holed up in the back room of a London tavern where they’re known simply as “Kent” and “London.” This interlude ends abruptly as “Kent,” the rough country man in town for a visit, is called back home on urgent family business; “London,” who hails from the same patch of marshy swampland as his lover, is soon called home for the first time since boyhood when his father dies. And just like that, a no-strings-attached tryst gets super messy as two very different men find themselves in deadly close proximity on opposite sides of the law.
Carole V. Bell is a Jamaican-born writer, critic, and media researcher.