Nine Romance Reads For Valentine’s or Any Other Day

Confession time: I read. A lot. Sometimes up to 3-4 books at the same time. I get completely absorbed in a good story and like many other avid readers (and writers), over the course of a great book, I often feel as if my favorite characters are genuine, in-the-flesh human beings.

I discovered at a very early age (7-8) that I love a good scare and a mystery to unravel. But at 13, I read my first historical romance novel, Sweet Savage Love, by Rosemary Rogers. Ms. Rogers’ debut novel was among the handful of 1970’s bestselling “bodice-rippers” that ignited the force known as the modern romance novel (the romance genre represents more than 1/3 of fiction sales and generates more than $1 billion in sales annually, according to Romance Writers of America).

Looking back at those early romance classics, including “the” classic, The Flame and The Flower, by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, the heroes were a little too dark and definitely too inclined to rape the heroine. They were everything I probably had no business reading at that age, yet I was hooked. Some 40 years later, I’m still an avid reader of romance, and although my tastes have evolved over the years, the attraction has not. For me, the allure of the romance novel is all about the characters. It’s the clash, the chase, the chemistry. And of course, that first kiss.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I started compiling a list of some of my favorite romances. I honestly have no idea how many I’ve read – certainly dozens every year for at least the last 20 years. The nine titles below include historical, contemporary, paranormal, (and two aren’t strictly in the romance genre.) But they do share the necessary ingredients that create a great romance: compelling stories, conflicts galore, a heroine that makes me want to sometimes yell but mostly cheer, and a hero with whom I could fall a little bit in love.


Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice.  Elizabeth and Darcy. Sigh… Not sure if there’s anything to add.

Suzanne Brockmann – The Unsung Hero – the first of Brockmann’s Troubleshooters series, I was hooked on the duel love stories in this novel, one set in the present day US and the other set in World War II.

Deborah Harkness – A Discovery of Witches. In the continued werewolf-vampire debate, I am decidedly in the vampire camp. And is there anything sexier than a vampire/genius who’s a professor at Oxford University? This novel is the first in the All Souls Trilogy, a winning combination of historical romance, mystery and fantasy.

Eloisa James – Pleasure For Pleasure (Essex Sisters series). It’s all about the character, and in this case it’s a flawed bad boy, the Earl of Mayne. I loved watching him evolve over the course of the series.

Julie James – Just the Sexiest Man Alive. My favorite contemporary romance. It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious and endlessly re-readable. If you’ve ever for a moment imagined falling in love with a movie star, you will love this novel.

Karen Marie Moning – The Fever Series. You need to read the entire Series, starting with Darkfever, to fully experience the relationship of MacKayla and Jericho. Set in a universe of Celtic mythology, this dark paranormal/fantasy series is compelling and intense.

Julia Quinn – Romancing Mister Bridgerton – The entire Bridgerton saga is an enchanting 5-Star Regency romance series. But I have a soft spot for heroine Penelope Featherington, who fell in love at 16 and then waited years for Colin Bridgerton to even notice she was in the room.

Nora Roberts – Valley of Silence. Book 3 in The Circle Trilogy. I’ve read so many of Roberts’ novels and most of her Irish Trilogies. For me, this paranormal series was a stand-out, all because of the vampire Cian, and one of my favorite scenes in any romance novel.

Maya Rodale – Seducing Mr. Knightly – Shy, talented and determined heroine. Brilliant yet clueless hero. Set in the world of Regency-era tabloid journalism. There’s so much to love about Rodale’s entire Writing Girls series, but Annabelle Swift makes me want to cheer.

While all of these titles are available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, if you have a local independent bookseller nearby, by all means, go buy them there.

And readers, I’d love to see your favorite romances in the comments.

National Novel Writing Month: Not For the Faint-of-Heart

Today is my second favorite holiday of the year, but instead of popping in vampire fangs (my go-to costume), this Halloween season I’ve been focused on prep work for my National Novel Writing Month project which begins (gulp) tomorrow,  November 1.

Some of you reading this post know that in the past I have not been a huge fan of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo is the somewhat cumbersome acronym). I’m still not 100% sold on it. My big problem is I still think it’s misleading to let new writers believe they’re capable of writing a publishable manuscript in 30 days. (And yes, I’m sure someone has. But they are FAR from the norm.)

But I do believe it’s possible to write a lousy first draft in 30 days.

This is largely because I’ve changed my thinking on one particular notion. I’ve previously argued that you can’t force yourself to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I’ve decided that I’ve been wrong about this.  I’ve been waiting years for the conditions to be perfect to write a novel. Waiting on the perfect timing, the perfect idea, the perfect characters. If I keep waiting, well, we know the sad end to that story. Actually, no, there will be no end, because there will be no story. No plot. No characters. Certainly no HEA (that’s romance writer speak for Happily Ever After).

So when a writing buddy of mine (the talented writer, Christine Clemetson), asked me if I was planning to take part in NaNoWriMo this year, I took a deep breath and jumped in.

I’m going to try really freaking hard not to overthink and psyche myself out like I usually do by thinking my outline isn’t the right format, or the plot isn’t fully developed, or that someone else has already written the story (Which someone probably has. Newsflash: There are no new stories. I just have to deal with writing my own version.)

I’m also going to have to force myself to keep writing even when my reporter-on-a-deadline mindset keeps popping in with its “no, no you have to edit this NOW” mantra. (Editing as you write is a necessity when you have a press deadline. It’s a death sentence for a novelist.)

So armed with character sketches, a list of scenes, a rough story arc, a detailed time management plan, and an abundance of coffee, I think I’m about ready to head in full force.

Look for an update from me here at least a couple of times in the next 30 days. The accountability aspect of NaNoWriMo is one of the things I like about the process.

And many thanks to my husband and youngest son, who will witness the full changes to my usually sparkling personality that may take place between now and December 1.

If you’re curious about NaNoWriMo, you still have almost six hours to sign up and write your own lousy first draft, at .



October Ghost Jaunts on the Jersey Shore

Strauss Mansion NJ
The Strauss Mansion, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey | Photo: Mary Ellen Landolfi

When I was in second or third grade,  sometime in October, the county library came to my grammar school to present a program on haunted places in Monmouth County, New Jersey. I sat with my classmates in the dim auditorium as the librarian clicked through a series of slides (On a slide projector. This was 1972, kids.) She narrated the slide show with stories that took place within a few miles of our school. A ghostly woman in 19th century formal wear waiting for a horse and carriage on the corner of Broad Street and Sycamore Avenue in Shrewsbury. Persistent bloodstains in two prominent Revolutionary War locations, including the nearby Allen House historic tavern. Pirates, murder and general mayhem all along the Jersey Shore. I was instantly hooked.

Since then, I’ve collected ghost stories from nearly every place I’ve visited. My skeptical husband and children will attest to the fact that I’ve dragged them to ghost walks and cemetery tours up and down the East Coast, from Plymouth, MA to Savannah, GA. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a couple of the world’s most famous haunted locations, including The Tower of London and Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

But the local stories have always been my favorites, and as I continue to meet other local paranormal enthusiasts, I keep adding to my list of local ghost tales, legends and haunted locations along the Jersey Shore. The best part about this time of year, from October and Halloween and right through the Christmas season, is many of these locations are open for events, both historic and ghostly.

Among my favorite historic and possibly haunted places to visit in Monmouth County are:

Old Tennent Church and Cemetery, Manalapan, NJ – Built around 1750, Old Tennent Presbyterian Church is still an active parish and one of the oldest in the nation. It also played a role in the Revolutionary War, and is literally yards away from where the Battle of Monmouth was fought. The church was used as a field hospital during the battle, and a blood stained pew can still be seen. Both the church and cemetery are said to be haunted by Revolutionary War soldiers.

Allaire Historic Village, Allaire State Park, Farmingdale, NJ – This “living history” museum was the location of the Howell Iron Works in the mid-1800s. Several buildings on the historic village are said to have unexplained phenomena, and at least one local paranormal group has investigated there. Many seasonal events are held here during the year, including Haunted Halloween events  in October as well as Christmas Lantern tours in December. Allaire Village is located in Allaire State Park and is open year round.

The Strauss Mansion, Atlantic Highlands – Built in 1892 and now home to the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society, The Strauss Mansion is one of a number of historic Victorian mansions located on Prospect Circle in Atlantic Highlands. There are documented reports of a haunting involving a deceased former tenant who may still reside in his upstairs apartment. The AHHS does not shy away from their ghost stories and offers a variety of ghost tours, haunted houses, and paranormal investigations alongside more traditional historic events throughout the year. Greg Caggiano, a writer,  AHHS Board Member, and producer of a local paranormal show, Ghosts on the Coast, wrote a book chronicling some of paranormal events at the mansion.

Historic Shrewsbury, Broad Street and Sycamore Ave., Shrewsbury, NJ. – There are several notable historic properties at the four corners in Shrewsbury, including Christ Church, founded in 1702, the Shrewsbury Friends Quaker Meeting House founded in 1672, and the Allen House, built in 1710. Tours of the locations are available throughout the year, but the best time of year to go is during the holiday season for the historic lantern tour. The main story associated with the area concerns The Allen House, which operated as a tavern  during the Revolutionary War, and was the site of the 1779 Allen House Massacre, essentially a skirmish between Loyalists and Continental Troops.

I drive past the four corners in Shrewsbury at least once a week, and even now, if I’m stopped at the traffic light, I always look to see if there’s elderly woman in Victorian clothing, waiting for her carriage.