Reading lists

Best romance books for ultimate escapism

Our team of book lovers have curated the ultimate romance reading list, whittling it down to just five perfect stories in each sub-genre.

Katie Russell and Lucy Hall
Image credit: Ashton Attzs for Penguin

What makes a good romance novel? Charming characters, grand gestures and happily-ever-afters are some of the key components. But in recent years, there has been an explosion in different types of love stories.

The new sub-genres include fantasy romance, which are love stories with fantastical or magical elements; historical romance, which are books set in the past; “enemies to lovers” and “friends to lovers” books, which follow unlikely couples who fall in love; and steamy romance, which needs no introduction. 

Our team of book lovers and romance readers have carefully curated the ultimate romance reading list below, whittling it down to just five stories for each sub-genre. For a limited time you can buy the five books in each set for £20 on Penguin Shop. There's something for every lover of love in the list below.

Best fantasy romance books

Cecilia Bassingwaite belongs to The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels, a group of lady criminals who pickpocket and blackmail their way around the patriarchy – all before afternoon tea. That is until dastardly assassin Ned Lightbourne arrives, sent to kill her. But after meeting Cecilia, he faces the ultimate professional conundrum: does he kill her. . . or fall in love with her? Enemies might just become allies in this hilariously fun and entertaining romance.

Eve of Man by Giovanna and Tom Fletcher (2018) 

Set in a chilling dystopian world where no girls have been born for 50 years and humanity teeters on the brink of distinction, a girl finally arrives.

Locked away until she is of age, three suitors are selected for her to choose from. But then Eve has a chance meeting with a boy named Bram that changes everything. If the future of humanity rests on her head, how can she follow her heart?   

Gild by Raven Kennedy (2020)

Promised to King Midas, who rescued and protected her many years before, Auren lives happily in his golden castle. When political upheaval and her lack of allies forces her from his land, everything she thought she knew about her golden king becomes fractured – leaving Auren ready to tell her story.

This is deeply immersive world-building at its very best, with a plot twist you will not want to miss. 

A beautiful blend of West African history, myth and fiction, mermaid Simidele goes against the ancient role of her people when she saves the life of a drowning boy thrown from a slave ship, instead of taking his soul to rest.

In doing so, she angers the vengeful gods and must journey to their kingdom to make amends – but failure could risk the world as she knows it. A vividly-imagined and epically-told fantasy story for the ages.  

Matrix by Lauren Groff (2021)

Descended from a long line of female warriors, Marie is deemed too wild by the court of a vicious new queen and is sent away to become the prioress of a failing abbey. Refusing to cower to her new situation, Marie charts a bold new course for her sisters – she will bring them riches and power beyond belief.

A story of love, devotion and sisterhood, told by one of the most exciting authors writing today. 

Best steamy romance novels

When Eva bumps into Gideon on her first day at her new job, she is drawn to him in a way she can’t describe, pulled into his dark web.

Gideon has demons of his own, and despite the dark desire they both feel, their tormented pasts threaten to rip them apart. The first in a multi-million copy bestselling series, this sexy, witty novel burns with a darkly sensual edge. 

At a chance meeting, Solène bumps into the world’s biggest popstar (based on Harry Styles). The attraction is instant, their chemistry undeniably electric. The only problem? Everybody in the world wants him.

Their affair is steamy and turning into something that feels like love. But how long can they keep it a secret? Addictive, glamourous and oh-so-sexy, this novel sparkles like the man it’s based on.

Freed by E. L. James (2021) 

Christian Grey has everything – he’s wildly successful, he’s close with his wonderful adopted family, and he’s about to marry the love of his life. But even though Ana and Christian’s love and passions run hotter than ever, Christian is still running from his need to control everything.

When old rivals endanger them both, can Christian escape his past and finally free himself? Packed full of the romance, drama and sensuality we’ve come to expect from this series, Freed certainly does not disappoint.  

Before there was the Fifty Shades franchise, there was Delta of Venus. This collection of 15 erotic short stories was ground-breaking when it was first published, for its explicit and occasionally shocking exploration of sex and desire through a female lens.

While this book was published posthumously in 1977, it comprises many stories that Anaïs Nin wrote for an anonymous collector of erotica – and, from the steaminess of some of the scenes, it shows.

This novel was infamously put on trial for “obscenity” when Penguin first tried to publish it in the UK in 1960, due to its explicit sex scenes which were shocking at the time. Lawrence’s novel follows Lady Constance Chatterley, who is trapped in a loveless, sexless marriage, until she gives in to her desire for the gamekeeper and discovers the joy of physical intimacy.

Best enemies to lovers books

Nora’s life is like a small-town romance – but she’s the career-driven girlfriend in the city who gets dumped. So, when she takes a trip to a small town herself, she’s more than a little sceptical – especially when her work arch nemesis, the cut-throat editor Charlie, turns up. With their believable characters and sparky dialogue, Emily Henry’s love stories have won her a loyal fanbase, and we can see why.

Read an extract from Book Lovers here.

Octavia by Jilly Cooper (1977)

Octavia is used to getting what she wants. So, when she meets the gorgeous Jeremy, she’s not going to let the fact he’s engaged to someone else get in her way. But when she accompanies the couple on holiday, Jeremy’s friend Gareth seems determined to thwart her plans. Octavia swears she loathes Gareth, but what if he’s the only man to truly understand her? This funny and heart-warming love story is Jilly Cooper at her best.

Shay has worked as a radio station producer for almost a decade. So, when new recruit Dominic claims to know everything, they can’t help but clash. Unfortunately, their boss thinks they’d be the perfect co-hosts on a new show, where they will give love advice on air. As the show becomes a hit, their hostility evolves into sexual tension… But could their relationship end their careers? This addictive romantic comedy is perfect for fans of The Hating Game.

Set On You by Amy Lea (2022)

When curvy fitness influencer Crystal meets Scott at the gym, it’s hate at first sight. Not only does the firefighter routinely steal her favourite squat rack, but his smug attitude also makes them clash. But when Crystal bumps into Scott at a family function, she starts to see another side to him. As the couple draw closer, a photo of them goes viral – and when trolls get involved, the real obstacles begin.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is the original enemies-to-lovers novel. It follows Elizabeth Bennett, as she navigates both society’s expectations and her embarrassing family, all while avoiding the obnoxious Mr. Darcy. His standards are absurdly high, while Elizabeth is quick to judge and slow to forgive. But as the pair keep being thrown together, their hostility evolves into something else altogether. Austen’s witty dialogue and loveable characters make this a timeless romance.

Best friends to lovers books

Much like in When Harry Met Sally, Poppy and Alex didn’t like each other when they first met. But over the years, they’ve become best friends who go on holiday together every year. Twelve years later, however, and their relationship is strained. Can one last holiday rekindle their failed friendship – and maybe lead to something more? This fun romantic comedy from Emily Henry is the perfect light read.

Eleanor and Fin were inseparable as teenagers and vowed to be best friends forever. But, when Fin abruptly left London to live in LA, the pair stopped speaking. Fast-forward over a decade, and the former friends are now strangers in their 30s – until an event causes them to reconnect. This warm story is full of humour, friendship and love in all its forms.

Inspired by the Julia Roberts film My Best Friend’s Wedding, in this novel it is the best man, Breaker, who realises he is in love with his best friend, Ophelia – who happens to be marrying someone else. As his feelings intensify, and the wedding draws nearer, he has a tough choice to make: risk his friendship, or potentially lose the love of his life.

Ari loves her job as a TV meteorologist, but life at the studio is chaotic; her boss is constantly fighting with her ex-boyfriend, the station’s news director. After a particularly explosive argument, Ari and the shy sports reporter Russell hatch a plan to get their bosses back together. But as they start meddling, Ari can’t help but wonder if there’s more to her quiet colleague than meets the eye…

Emma by Jane Austen (1815)

Emma is wealthy, single and independent, and is absolutely not interested in getting married. She does, however, enjoy matchmaking other people. But when her plans go awry, as they frequently do, it is her friend and confidante Mr. Knightley who is always by her side. Gradually, their friendship blossoms into something more. This is one of Austen’s most enduring romances – and for good reason.

Best historical romance novels

Summer, 1963. Alexandra finds herself on the doorstep of an imposing Provence Château. Waiting inside are the three new children she is now in charge of, eager to make her life hell – but what is even more hellish is their father, a devilishly handsome French count with whom she seems to be falling in love. Pure joy and escapism from one of the best in the genre.  

How did a secret from 1941 cause such long-standing heartache? On a trip home to Ireland, Grania encounters the mysterious Aurora walking on the cliffs. Grania finds herself drawn to the woman, before they discover their families have been intertwined for a century. From a bittersweet wartime romance to a sweeping love story in modern day New York, can the women help each other to heal the past and secure their futures?   

As war is declared across Europe, Cadi and her best friend Poppy seize their chance to escape Wales and Cadi’s impending marriage, swapping their small town for Liverpool. But when they arrive to the poverty-stricken city, their hopes are dashed and the girls find work in the local pub. As they settle, Cadi finds herself drawn to a friendly dockworker and their romance grows – until her ex-fiancé turns up in an RAF uniform and Cadi must decide where her heart truly lies.  

Love, heartbreak and hope all intertwine in this sweeping tale as Julia Forrester returns to Wharton Park – a place that holds fond memories of her beloved late grandfather – newly inherited by Kit Crawford, who has a sad story of his own. Renovating the house uncovers a diary, and both must turn to Julia’s grandmother to discover a love affair that changed the fortunes of the house and the family many years before.  

Cyril Avery has always known he doesn’t belong in his adopted family. So, as he approaches adulthood in 20th-century Ireland, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery as he unwittingly comes to terms with his sexuality and what that means for his place in the world. Devastatingly funny and utterly heart-breaking, this book will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. 

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