MY 2023 FIVE-STAR ROMANCE BOOK FINDS

Well, we’re in the home stretch of 2023, and what a year for romance books! 

You know that feeling when you read a book that you love more with every page, where you absolutely adore the characters and want to finish the book so badly but also want it to keep going forever? When it’s way too late and you need to go to work in the morning but you can’t stop yourself from reading? When you are compelled to read the book again (and again and again)? When you’ve completely tuned out the world around you?

These are the novels that hit those points and what I love about romance books.

I am really stingy with my five-star ratings, so here are my top 2023 romance books (4.5 star and above). Stay tuned for more by the end of the year. Maybe you agree!

Unfortunately Yours by Tessa Bailey

Following Secretly Yours by only a few months, Unfortunately Yours is the rare sequel that bests the original and a definite 2023 romance book.

Natalie’s always been underestimated and ignored by her winemaking family, so she left to get her business degree and killing it in the New York hedge fund world. Until she made one mistake and wasn’t kicking a** anymore.

Determined to get back to the top, she comes home for her trust fund to raise some capital, but there’s one problem—it requires a husband… antiquated, yes, but it says what it says.

Enter the smoking hot new guy in Napa and former Navy SEAL August, who wants to honor his late best friend’s legacy by running a successful vineyard. Who also happens to be Natalie’s sworn enemy. So far, his wine is terrible, he’s running out of money, and he and Natalie decide they can help each other by getting married. What could go wrong?

So far, it sounds like just another marriage of convenience trope, right? But wait, there’s more. The themes are woven together perfectly: Natalie’s disillusionment with her family, the sad but true boys’ club experiences she has in the finance world, August’s grief and need to atone for his friend’s death, inside and outside forces spurring them on yet driving them apart.

Plus, the third-act obstacle was not eye-rolling or super irritating; it flowed with the story and made sense.  Without spoiling it, Unfortunately Yours‘ ending was anything but unfortunate. I might even have to add it to my Best Endings post!

Rating: 5
Steam: Medium
Themes and Tropes: Marriage of convenience, fake relationship, enemies to lovers, military guy
Pair with: Wines from Veteran-Owned Vineyards.

The True Love Experiment by Christina Lauren

Successful romance novelist Fizzy is not feeling the romance anymore. She’s never been in love, doesn’t see it happening anytime soon, and feels like her whole persona is a lie.

For serious filmmaker Connor, his documentary career might be dead if he can’t do a complete 180 and create a hit reality dating show for his production company. He knows Fizzy is perfect for the role, but can he talk her into it and meet her wild (and hilarious) creative demands? Can he watch her date one hot contestant after another? Can she go through with it when she figures out where her heart is?

LOVED! The True Love Experiment put me back on the love side of the love-lukewarm relationship I have with Christina Lauren’s books. From start to finish, the characters and storyline drew me in and held on.

While I am so over the romance-novelist-as-heroine trope, Fizzy’s offbeat sense of humor and fun personality kept it from falling into the stereotype. There were a few annoying miscommunications (my biggest romance pet peeve), but they didn’t ruin it for me.

Without giving it away, just know the ending was spectacular—the outcome was predictable but the execution wasn’t, and it blew me away (the main reason I came close to 5 stars).

Rating: 4.8
Steam: Medium
Themes and Tropes: Proximity, Single Dad, Colleagues, Forbidden Love
Pair with: Rosé in a can, to remember Fizzy’s CVS run. Options include Archer Roose, Nomikai, or just whatever you can find at your local drugstore!

We Could Be So Good by Cat Sebastian

From the Publisher (liked this summary better than mine):

Nick Russo has worked his way from a rough Brooklyn neighborhood to a reporting job at one of the city’s biggest newspapers. But the late 1950s are a hostile time for gay men, and Nick knows that he can’t let anyone into his life. He just never counted on meeting someone as impossible to say no to as Andy.

Andy Fleming’s newspaper-tycoon father wants him to take over the family business. Andy, though, has no intention of running the paper. He’s barely able to run his life–he’s never paid a bill on time, routinely gets lost on the way to work, and would rather gouge out his own eyes than deal with office politics. Andy agrees to work for a year in the newsroom, knowing he’ll make an ass of himself and hate every second of it.

Except, Nick Russo keeps rescuing Andy: showing him the ropes, tracking down his keys, freeing his tie when it gets stuck in the ancient filing cabinets. Their unlikely friendship soon sharpens into feelings they can’t deny. But what feels possible in secret–this fragile, tender thing between them–seems doomed in the light of day. Now Nick and Andy have to decide if, for the first time, they’re willing to fight.

Yes! We Could Be So Good is SO GOOD! The storytelling is masterful, I feel like I live next door to the characters (and would love to be friends with them), and there’s much more to it than just romance.

A major theme of We Could Be So Good is the fear and danger that comes with being a gay man in 1950s New York, but it doesn’t make the book depressing. You get as much as genuine feel as you can of what real people like Nick and Andy had to deal with, but you also get hope, acceptance, love, and layers of complexity. 

You get not only the growth of Nick and Andy’s relationship, which is just lovely and sweet and fun to follow, but also their relationships with their families and friends, their professions, and finding their place in the world where they have allies and can be allies.

Rating: 5
Steam: Medium
Themes and Tropes: LGBTQIA, Historical, Gay Relationship in the 1950s, Opposites Attract, Proximity, Colleagues
Pair With: Classic wines popular in the 1950s-60s, such as Bordeaux blends; also consider a classic cocktail like a gin & tonic, Manhattan, or Old Fashioned.

City girl, wine buyer, and introvert Jenn finds herself in the Italian countryside scoping out Proseccos when she meets country boy, grappa distiller, and all-around good guy Tiziano. Of course he just happens to be the grandson of her B&B host and literally knows everyone in this tight-knit Italian community. He plays the happy-go-lucky goofball on the surface and hides his complexities and worries from the world, while Jenn comes across as aloof and keeps the world at arm’s length. Are they willing to let each other in?

The feeling in A Taste of Italian Sunshine is everything! It was so real and genuine, from the characters’ depth, the relationships across the community, and the glorious setting. You feel like you’re in Italy’s wine country experiencing the harvest, vineyards, tastings, and everything else.

The dialogue flows naturally and you can imagine the gatherings and conversations taking place; so often, dialogue is so stilted and you feel like the author is trying too hard—not the case here. And of course, Tiziano is adorable—not just handsome and sexy, but a deep guy beneath his laid-back surface.

I felt so connected to the characters and the story—the main reason I gave it 5 stars. Sometimes I get swept away by the setting, and a love story set among Italian vineyards in the countryside is right up my fairy tale alley. Still, it’s the characters, emotions, and feelings combined with that perfect setting that did it for me.

This was my first Leonie Mack book; I loved it so much that I’ve now read (and loved) them all. This one is tied with Italy Ever After for my favorite, at least for now!

Rating: 5
Steam: Low
Themes and Tropes: Small Town, Travel, Italy, Proximity, Opposites Attract
Pair With: Prosecco.

A Taste of Italian Sunshine by Leonie Mack

If Only You by Chloe Liese

Ziggy is the youngest in her family, youngest on the USWNT, and tired of her teammates and family treating her like a baby. She’s ready to kick butt on the field and in life, and to graduate from the kids’ table at family get-togethers. Sebastian is her brother’s self-destructive best friend and hockey star who desperately needs a reputation rehab to keep his sponsors and his job.

So Ziggy needs some edge, Sebastian needs a reboot, and the duo decides to fake a friendship and get the type of exposure each wants. From the start, they want more but won’t give in; Sebastian knows he needs to get himself together and Ziggy knows she can’t push him too hard.

This story is the sweetest! Sebastian is a priceless gem and Ziggy is pretty cool too. I loved seeing a tall (for a change), athletic, and determined heroine learning to go after what she wants and make her voice heard. Seeing what Sebastian has gone through, how he wants to put in the work to make his life better, and how he cares so much about being someone Ziggy can count on, really brought a beautiful message.

Major plus—no super annoying miscommunications or really ridiculous third-act breakup.

Rating: 5
Steam: Low
Themes and Tropes: Slow Burn, Athletes/Sports, Fake Relationship, Friends to Lovers, Opposites Attract
Pair With: Wines that sponsor women’s soccer and other women’s sports. Consider widely available Jacob’s Creek, which sponsored the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

Briana Ortiz: smart and successful emergency room doctor, soon to be divorced from a nasty ex, has a beloved brother in kidney failure, and now hears the decision on who’s getting the big promotion—that she’s worked toward for years—is being delayed so the new guy can be considered too. What?

Jacob Maddox: the new guy, a kind and loving soul who suffers major social anxiety and comes off as aloof and difficult, and left his old job to get away from his nasty ex-girlfriend who, of course, is now engaged to his traitorous brother.

So these two are dealing with some baggage and get off on the wrong foot. It looks pretty bleak until Jacob writes the cutest letter to Briana and she realizes, just maybe, Jacob isn’t so bad. So she writes him back, and you can see where this is going.

They really start to get each other and develop a beautiful friendship. Jacob finds out he’s a perfect match to donate a kidney to Briana’s brother and decides to do it. Briana finds out Jacob’s skanky ex and his brother are getting married and Jacob needs a fake girlfriend to get him through the wedding. As the fake (and real) relationship grows, it does drag a bit; each wants it to be real but thinks the other person doesn’t, and fears taking a chance.  

Briana and Jacob are both lovely humans, but, wow, Jacob is one of the absolute best book boyfriends. He is the most selfless, caring, lovely human being in just about any book I’ve read, so much so that my only criticism is that he maybe needs to grow a backbone and not let people walk all over him. If you’re looking for alpha caveman, this is not the guy for you. If you want an absolute sweetheart, grab this book ASAP.

Rating: 4.5
Steam: Low
Themes and Tropes: Letters, Enemies to Friends to Lovers, Fake Relationship, Toxic Exes
Pair with: a wine subscription? Who knew there’s a Yours Truly Wine?

Yours Truly by Abby Jimenez

French Holiday by Sarah Ready

Merry DeLuca has been pining after her BFF Leo for years, and then suddenly, he’s marrying her sister? What? So of course we are required to instantly hate the gorgeous, spoiled sister, Angela—either she knew Merry loved Leo and went after him anyway (pure evil) or she didn’t know Merry was in love with him all this time (self-centered and oblivious). Angela and Leo’s constant PDA and insistence on having her sit through it is enough to further drive the knife into Merry and she’s at a loss.

Perfect timing: Merry’s flighty godmother offers her a three-month stay in what sounds like a gorgeous French chateau, so off she goes and finds . . . Noah Wright, Leo’s best friend, hot travel documentary star, and her mortal enemy. Neither will budge, so they’re stuck together as Noah tries to work and Merry tries to get over unrequited love.

French Holiday was a little rocky in the beginning when I was cringing at most of what Merry said and hating Noah, but I ended up loving it! After the debacle with Leo, Merry makes a new goal to be more direct and stop backing down from things, and follows through! So no annoying heroine who just holds things in and lets people act like jerks—mostly.

Noah’s side story and the real reason he’s in France is done really well—I’m not going to give it away. Sometimes the side plots in the romances are just thrown in purely so they exist and aren’t well-developed, but this one forms a core part of the story and really helps the reader understand Noah. Even the final obstacle wasn’t dumb (thank goodness). Still hate the sister though.

Rating: 4.5
Steam: Low
Themes and Tropes: Enemies to Lovers, Proximity, Castle, Escape/Travel
Pair With: Wines from wine regions around Annecy, France, such as Savoie and Beaujolais.   

Quito is a masterful and kindhearted Filipino musician, who grew up accompanying his music teacher dad’s choir and dreaming of Broadway. Emmett is seemingly perfect—a good-looking, popular athlete with straight A’s who fits in wherever he goes.

Emmett and Quito meet in high school when Emmett joins the choir. After a rocky start, they become close friends. But after the incident in college, their friendship shatters along with Quito’s inspiration and ability to compose, while Emmett turns into a blockbuster movie star. Years later, Quito’s sweet and persistent dad is retiring and begs Quito to team up with Emmett to put on a final performance in their old stomping grounds.

All the Right Notes has a little bit of everything—joy, passion, hilarity, tension, kindness, love, inclusivity, drama, empathy, and brilliant storytelling woven into a rom-com masterpiece. The characters are both unique and relatable, and their journeys give this book so much life and make it a one-of-a-kind. Rare five stars! Also excellent audio version.

Rating: 5

Steam: Low

Tropes: Second Chance, LGBTQIA+, Friendship, Family

Pair With: Sake (in a glass from Macy’s if you have one); Wines from vineyards committed to LGBTQIA inclusivity. Here are some articles: 8 LGBTQ+ Winemakers, LGBT Wine Society, 

All the Right Notes by Dominic Lim

Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld

When nice, dorky, average comedy-writer Danny gets engaged to gorgeous actress Annabel, his fellow writer Sally has the perfect idea for a late-night sketch: a hilarious but also painfully true and well-established fact that an average-looking man can get a hot woman but an average-looking woman will never get a hot man (a.k.a. the Danny Horst Rule).

Sally’s not a romantic anymore and is willing to settle for decidedly unromantic occasional hookups when she can fit them into her busy schedule. When superstar musician hottie Noah is the show’s host and musical guest that week, he and Sally hit it off when they’re collaborating on sketches. But of course Sally knows this couldn’t be an actual romance—what sexy superstar known for dating models would be with a writer like her? See Danny Horst Rule 101.

If you ever wanted a glimpse into what Saturday Night Live might be like behind the scenes or have any appreciation for 30 Rock, this book is for you.

There’s also so much depth brought to the characters and really great relationships all around, social commentary that really hits the mark without going too far, and the perfect feminist themes running throughout.

Sally had me at her desire to “create characters who aren’t flawless but also aren’t ridiculous or incompetent at life.” Hot mess characters can be a lot of fun, but we also need characters who kick butt at life. Sally’s insecurities do get annoying after a while and could have been toned down a bit, probably the only reason I didn’t give it a full five stars, but overall this book killed it.

I listened to the audio version of this book and loved it—narrator did a great job and nailed the characters’ personalities.

Rating: 4.6
Steam: Average
Themes and Tropes: Celebrity, Letters and Emails, Proximity
Pair With: Non-Alcoholic Wines

Brilliant, energetic, and kind adjunct professor Mickey is fed up with the low pay and minimal respect she gets from the university, and stumbles into a bartending job that should help her pay the bills for the summer. Her boss, brooding (and grieving widower) Diego is taking online classes and his teacher is . . . Mickey of course.

They start off with the grumpy-sunshine-enemies(ish) vibe, but it’s clear early on that there’s some serious fire between them. I love the way their relationship builds, in some ways almost against their wills and in other ways exactly what they both need and want.

One great thing about this book is that the bumps they hit aren’t ridiculous, but real and fitting for the characters and the plot. And the bar crew—lots of fun banter and people who really care about it each other. I love when a book can really make a group of people seem like family.

On a separate note, the book did a great job highlighting the way colleges treat adjuncts—who are often brilliant and have valuable real-world experience and knowledge—as second-class professors.

Finally, I’d stick to the printed version. I did the audiobook, and the narrator was great for normal scenes but was too bland for the more dramatic scenes.

Rating: 4
Steam: Medium
Themes and Tropes: Opposites Attract, Teacher/Student, Boss/Employee, Forbidden Love, Widower
Pair With: Dive Bar drinks and cheap wine.

Mickey Chambers Shakes It Up by Charish Reid

How to Tame a Wild Rogue by Julie Anne Long

I had to get a couple historical romances in here, too. It’s really tough in this genre to write something that stands out, given all the restrictions on women (and even men) throughout history. How to Tame a Wild Rogue was unique and a lot of fun.

Ever-resourceful Lady Daphne Worth finds herself climbing out the window to flee her handsy boss, and runs headlong into Lorcan St. Leger. Notorious Lorcan climbed his way out of London’s worst neighborhood and eventually became a privateer for the Crown (among other occupations). He’s highly respected (and feared) by most of London.

Lorcan’s protective instincts kick in when he sees Daphne and knows a huge storm is coming. They seek refuge in a lovely boardinghouse and must pretend to be husband and wife to take the last remaining suite. But neither sees the other as a legitimate prospect even as their walls crumble and they give in to each other. As the publisher puts it, “Crackling enmity gives way to incendiary desire—and certain heartbreak.” Sign me up!

Watching the characters develop was so much fun, but the absolute best of all was the ending—you know you’re getting an HEA in a romance novel, but I’m not giving away the details. Just know that everyone gets what’s coming to them, for the most part and the joy is off the charts!

Rating: 4.5
Steam: Medium
Themes and Tropes: Opposites Attract, Fake Marriage, Slow Burn, Close Proximity
Pair With: Whatever you drink when you’re holed up for a storm.

Ana María and the Fox by Liana De La Rosa

High-society Mexican Ana María Luna Valdes and her sisters are sent to England to stay with their uncle. Ana María has always been the good girl and always under her powerful father’s thumb. Finally, she has some freedom with her more liberal uncle, and the chance to bond with her sisters; she’s going to take advantage of it while also trying to paint Mexico in a positive light for the British.

Gideon Fox came from nothing and is now a powerful politician who hasn’t lost his values or the causes he supports. As the grandson of a former slave, he’s devoted his career to stopping the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Ana María and Gideon are instantly drawn to each other but keep their distance—he can’t risk his political goals and she’s engaged (loveless arranged marriage, but still) and can’t risk being sent home or embarrassing her family. When circumstances force his hand, he offers it to her (purely to protect her of course, not because he wants her…).

I loved both main characters for the most part—flawed but genuinely good people, and the author’s character development adds some depth and makes me feel like I know who these people are and what makes them tick. It was also nice to see real issues—the slave trade and racism for example—in a Regency romance. Plus, I can always use a little adventure in a romance!

Rating: 4.5
Steam: 1.5
Themes and Tropes: Forbidden Love, Slow Burn, Marriage of Convenience; Sisters
Pair With: A Mexican wine, such as Casa Madero 3V Red Blend or Cabernet, Bodegas Henri Lurton wines, and L.A. Cetto.