Dream a Little Dream and Ain't She Sweet
by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Richly layered characters who feel like real people you will never, ever forget are SEP's calling card, as is smart, sparkling banter. Both these books epitomize what she does best—pair down-on-their-luck heroines with seemingly irredeemable heroes and make magic happen on the page and consequently in readers' hearts.
Kiss of Snow
by Nalini Singh
If intricately detailed world building and visceral connections between characters are your thing, Singh's Psy-Changeling world is as good as it gets. You don't have to read the books in order, but it helps. Definitely read a few of the earlier books before you get to Kiss of Snow, because the buildup to that book makes the coming together of the wolf alpha and the dangerously powerful young refugee under his protection even more intensely satisfying.
Blue Eyed Devil and Devil in Winter
by Lisa Kleypas
Kleypas is the author primarily responsible for hooking me into romance. Not only are her stories romantic but her storytelling is romantic in texture and tone. Her characters, how they interact on the page—all of her writing just has this aching, burning lyricism to it. For me these two books have some of the most intense chemistry and connection in the genre.
The Best Man
by Kristan Higgins
Actually, anything by Kristan Higgins will make you laugh out loud one moment and then sob into your tissue the next. She creates some of the most vulnerable characters I've ever read and then puts them in situations where they must overcome their harshest challenges without losing their vulnerability or their softness. She also creates the quirkiest, warmest families and communities that you want to crawl inside and never leave.
My Beautiful Enemy
by Sherry Thomas
Thomas is by strong consensus acknowledged as the best wordsmith in the genre. Her prose is complex and delightful, and she plays the language like a finely tuned instrument. Her characters are layered and conflicted, and they actually make huge damning mistakes—something we don't see much of in romance. All her books are lovely, especially the Fitzhugh Trilogy, but My Beautiful Enemy is set in the Hindu Kush mountains between India and China with a brilliant warrior heroine and a deeply feminist hero, and to me it epitomizes her substantial talent.
by Alexis Hall
There is such intelligence and nuance to Hall's writing that it's impossible not to be instantly transported to the very center of his protagonist's world. Glitterland is a free fall into the darkness that is mental illness, but also a coming out into the light. It is a beautiful breaking down of constraints like social class and age that dictate whom we allow ourselves to connect with. It is a love story that explores the nature of love itself purely from the perspective of how it makes us feel, and it is utterly beautiful.
by Beverly Jenkins
Jenkins's books have a raw honesty that lets you live the story, not just read it. Her characters are warriors with struggles you internalize to a point where you feel somehow personally transformed when you've overcome them. Forbidden was my gateway drug to her work, and unlike most historical romance, it felt less like a fairy tale and more like a story my grandmother told me about her admirable youth, with all its heartbreak and pride, and I was hooked. v