According to Romance Writers of America, purchases of romance novels outstrip every other fiction genre. Still, romance doesn't get much respect. I'm out to change that stereotype! In my experience, some of the most carefully crafted characters and thoughtful, pointed plots are found in this genre.

Here, seven novels that piqued my interest and passion:

Silver Springs by Carolyn Lampman - Ah, there’s always a soft spot in your heart for your first. Romance, that is. And this was mine. I forget exactly how I got my hands on it, but it spoke to what I was looking for in life as a teenager. I didn’t want a Cinderella story, but rather a marriage between a fulfilling professional life and love. It features a smart heroine, Angel Brady, who uses her cunning, guile, heart, and business sense to achieve love and business success. Angel sells her boomtown casino high and returns home, to rescue her twin sister from an arranged marriage. She teams up with her sister’s unexpected fiancé to build a successful coach business and drive their greedy fathers to capitulate on the issue of the marriage.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig - Lauren Willig’s books manage to span the spectrum of the historical and the contemporary. In this story, modern-day PhD student Eloise Kelly travels to England for research. As she discovers old letters and documents, Eloise (along with the readers) becomes engrossed in the story of Amy Balcourt. Amy wishes desperately to become a spy like the famous Purple Gentian, and travels to France with her brother in the hopes of achieving that goal. Willig, like her character, has earned a PhD in history, and after each story, she includes additional information on the time period. I walk away from her novels happier and better informed.

Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie - I started reading Jennifer Crusie when I became bold enough to allow myself to be seen spending hours in the Romance section of the bookstore. After several recommendations, I picked this book up for a beach read. Instead of spending time in the water, I was glued to the sand and my beach chair. Crusie’s witty dialogue and unique characters are at their best in this fun novel (after reading it, I raced through most of Crusie’s catalogue). In it, Min overhears her ex make a bet with hot guy Cal that he won’t be able to get her into bed. Looking to prove them both wrong, Min accepts a date with Cal. Min is typical of many of Crusie’s heroines: she gains confidence over the course of the novel. The snappy dialogue moves the book along, and even after reading more of Crusie’s novels, and truly enjoying all of them, I felt this book was meatier.

The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne - This novel indulges one of my passions: historical novels featuring empowered women. My copy features a classic romance cover: the hero is tearing his shirt apart to reveal a finely muscled torso. But the book centers on Annique Villiers, the infamous spy known as the Fox Cub. Annique has been a spy almost all of her life and goes toe-to-toe with her English rival/love interest, Robert Grey. As you can tell, I enjoy my historical romances with a healthy dose of derring-do. Bourne is an expert at building dramatic tension and in conveying a sense of place as Annique and Robert travel across France and into England. She unrolls her secrets carefully, stunning the reader with each successive tidbit.

Ride with Me by Ruthie Knox - Ruthie Knox represents a newer generation of romance novelists. Although heroines have been empowered and smart for quite some time, many have remained virgins prior to their sexual encounters with the hero. This is often appropriate in historical romances, but increasingly less so in contemporary romances. In Ride with Me, Lexie, the heroine, has enjoyed sex in the past and doesn’t shy away from the impulses that being around antisocial Tom arouses in her. As they bike their way across the TransAmerica trail, the sexual tension builds to such a frenzy that I wanted to clap when they both finally succumbed.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase - Loretta Chase excels in creating smart, thoughtful, witty, and well-meaning heroines. Here, Jessicais saddled with a brother whose intellect and sense fall far short of her own. She is determined to save her brother Bertie from the clutches of the rogue, the Marquess of Dain. For me, the initial scene between Dain and Jessica set the tone for the rest of the book. The two find themselves in an antique shop, where Jessica scrutinizes a naughty watch. Not only does she impress Dain with her knowledge of the unique timepiece, but she also impresses him with her sophisticated negotiating skills with a small picture that turns out to be a valuable Russian icon.

Key of Knowledge by Nora Roberts - Slipping into a Nora Roberts novel is, to me, like slipping into my college sweatshirt. It’s comfortable, and you know exactly what you’re getting. One reason, however, that I continue to read Roberts’ series, is the bond that she builds not only between love interests, but between women, where women work together to achieve professional dreams. I truly enjoyed Key of Knowledge, the second in The Key Trilogy. As a child, I read numerous fantasy novels, and The Key Trilogy is driven by magical events. The heroine, Dana, is a librarian and book lover, and I found myself relating to her for that reason. Her love interest, Jordan, is a writer. I occasionally wonder what I would think of Jordan now that I’m a writer. I’m not a re-reader, but I might just pick up this book again...

Anne Browning Walker is the author of the upcoming contemporary romance novel, The Booby Trap (September 2012). You can find her online at, on Facebook, or on Twitter @AnneBWalker.