February 20, 2007 - Issue #255

From the Desk of Blythe Barnhill:

Our Choices

The annual Staff Choice column is always fun for us because it gives us a chance to indulge a little – and gush. There's no weighing of strengths and weaknesses, and our biggest problem is usually picking just one. Everyone makes a case for their favorite, and the process always reminds me why I became a romance reader in the first place. In years past, some of us have struggled with reading slumps and romance ennui. This year, nearly every staff member advocated for a favorite (or two or three).

Some on our staff chose favorites that were not strictly romance. Pollster Lee found her somewhat unlikely favorite in a London airport, and for her it was love at first sight (or is that love at first read?). She writes:

"My pick is Going Home, by Harriet Evans.  I bought it back in June while at Heathrow Airport in London; it had a "3 for 2" (price) sticker on it, and a cover blurb by Sophie Kinsella, so I said to myself, "if Sophie likes it, must be pretty good."  The story is about a woman living in London and her relationships with her family and friends.  Much of the story takes place at Keeper House, her childhood home in the country - the kind of home any Anglophile would love to own.

Lee's runners-up were Her Perfect Life by Vicki Hinze and Anne Solomon's Blackout.

Rachel's favorite this year was The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, which she confesses had "only a smidgen of romance, and (mostly) unrequited at that." Her runner up was Hester Browne's Chick Lit novel, The Little Lady Agency.

Jane didn't have any true DIK reads this year, but she really enjoyed Jana DeLeon's debut romance/mystery hybrid, Rumble on the Bayou. Another favorite (though not a romance) was Sharon Shinn's Dark Moon Defender.

Liz is one of the biggest paranormal fans on the staff. Her 2006 choice was Slave to Sensation by Nalini Singh. She loved the characters and thought the book was fun. She notes that after the "major disappointment of 2005", she was kind of "shocked" at how many good books she read from 2006. That said, though, it's also the first year she didn't read any Medievals, which she finds "very sad". All of Liz's top picks are paranormals, and J.R. Ward's Lover Awakened and P.C. Cast's Goddess of the Rose tied for second place.

Linda's favorite of the year was a fantasy romance, Christine Warrens' She's No Faerie Princess. Linda is one of our fastest readers, so her top nod always needs to beat out quite a few contenders. Previous to her Others series of which She's No Faerie Princess is a part, her books were e-published. Linda found the story of a fae princess and a werewolf with a strong sense of responsibility to be "charming and different from all other books I read this year."

Laurie, Anne, and Linda all picked Contemporary or Romantic Suspense titles. Like Jane, Laurie suffered through a DIK-less year, so her top pick, Anne Stuart's Cold as Ice, a B+ read for her: "Though I read five DIK's last year, none were published in 2006. Instead, I chose from among my B+ reads for the year, and it's nice to know that another of my B+'s showed up (She's No Faerie Princess) as the best of the year for another AAR colleague. In the end I went with Cold as Ice...for a few reasons. It came thisclose to living up to my expectations (few books do), the hero was as interesting as advertised, and the ending was a bit more definitive than Stuart often does with her R.S. novels - and way more romantic."

Anne was tempted to plead the case for a 2005 book (Lynn Viehl's If Angels Burn). Like many of us, her TBR pile is completely out of control, and she's afraid she'll get around to reading Viehl's 2006 book sometime in 2008 (I'm sure we can all relate). Fortunately, she also remembered she did have a favorite published this year: Beverly's Jenkins' Sexy/Dangerous. Several other AAR staffers liked this one as well.

Lynn, Leigh, Joan, and Kate all chose historical romances this year. Joan's favorite was One Forbidden Evening by Jo Goodman, a book (and author) she also feels is a buried treasure. She enjoyed the"unusual situations, strong chemistry, and wonderful proposal scene." Kate picked Hope Tarr's Vanquished as her favorite, but it only narrowly beat out her runner-up – The Silver Rose by Susan Carroll. She also enjoyed Denise Rossetti's Gift of the Goddess. Lynn's pick was the Medieval romance Sinful Pleasures, by Mary Reed McCall, about which she writes: "I loved the plot and historical detail in this story, and the characters just stayed in my mind for weeks after I read the book.  My runners up would be The Spanish Bride by Laurien Gardner and Helen Kirkmans' Untamed."

Leigh read Liz Carlyle's Two Little Lies late in 2005 (one of those reviewer perks), and waited patiently for another 2006 release to unseat it as "favorite romance of the year". Nothing ever did. Leigh writes: "I read it at the end of 2005 and waited through all of 2006 for something better to come along.  That never happened.  It may be a Regency historical (yawn) built around the ubiquitous secret child plot (groan), but it also demonstrates that a talented author can make even the most well-trod territory emotional and enthralling.  The book contains no real surprises and breaks no new ground.  It's simply very well-done, with strong characters and the vivid feelings necessary to make this story their own.  For a few hours I managed to forget how sick to death I am of the secret child plot, no small feat.  I was too busy experiencing the kind of emotional journey that seems so frustratingly scarce in the genre these days.  I haven't read a new DIK in more than two years. This came closest."

If I had to pick an author who had the most buzz last year, J.R. Ward would be the hands-down favorite. Two of our staff picked Lover Awakened as their favorite from last year. Pollster Cindy had this to say about the third of Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series: "This book would be in my top ten favorite books of all time. There are things in Ward's books I don't like but every part of the Z's story was brilliant.  Here was a man who had learned to shut off his emotions... watching how he came back to life was amazing.  Zsadist was not a "pretend" tortured character who was misunderstood.  Z had earned every bad thought people had of him.  This man was ruined and had no feelings. It wasn't easy for him to come back to life - and it wasn't pretty and I loved that Z didn't become whole the minute he fell in love.  Ward's books seem to be more about the men and this book was Z's story, period."

Lea was in complete agreement: "Well, I feel like one of those J R Ward fangirls as I tell you Lover Awakened was my favorite for 2006.  I am somewhat embarrassed to be included in that group but I read the previous books in the series within two months of its publication and therefore was really tuned into the world that had been created for Zsadist's story.  I am not a fan of vampire books and read few of them but regardless, it was more than the romance that stirred me so deeply.  Z's personal development was moving but it was his relationship with his twin brother, Phury, that touched me most deeply.  So it was a winner on several levels."

Lea's runner-up is Linda Howard's Drop Dead Gorgeous, though she notes that it would not have been a keeper had she not already read and loved To Die For several times.

Our top two winners this year are both historicals, and were both loved by several of our staff. Cheryl, Lisa, and Ellen all chose Simply Love by Mary Balogh, which makes it our second place finisher this year. Ellen had this to say about her choice: "Balogh's book wins by a hair.  So sue me, I like the Bedwyn family and was glad to see them.  But it was Syd and Anne who made this book such a treat.  I love to see tortured characters find love and happiness and if ever a pair deserved all the happiness in the world, it was Syd and Anne.  I can't express how deeply this book touched me.  A close (very very close) runner-up was Hope Tarr's Vanquished, which was the epitome of the well written, thoughtful and intelligent historical romance that I have missed for so long.  It was a wonderful book as well, and actually I could call this a draw and say they were both my favorites for the year.

Cheryl couldn't have agreed more:"Simply Love won my vote for best romance, for the same reasons as Ellen. Love the Bedwyns, loved Sydnam and Anne in previous books, loved they were both damaged but found love when they believed no one could love them." Cheryl's close seconds are Loretta Chase's Lord Perfect and The Silver Rose by Susan Carroll.

Simply Love was number one for Lisa as well. She also enjoyed Paullina Simons' The Summer Garden, and The Raven Prince by debut novelist Elizabeth Hoyt.

Simply Love was very nearly my choice as well. Usually I am almost ruthless in my decisiveness.  I almost always pick my favorite well ahead of time. But when I sat down to write the column, I was still seesawing between my two favorites. I really loved Balogh's book, so much that after reading it I went back and reread a few more of the Bedwyn books so I could enjoy the experience even more. In the end, though I ended up casting my vote for the winner.

The big winner - by a relative landslide, at least by staff standards – was Chase's Lord Perfect. Jeanne, Sandy, LinnieGayl, Bessie, Robin, and I – six of us altogether - gave it top honors. I ended up giving it the slight edge because I simply loved and adored the proper, responsible (but sexy!) hero. For LinnieGayl, the two children in the story were also a highlight: She writes, "I loved Benedict, and thought Bathsheba was a very different, and interesting, heroine.  I even enjoyed the two children in the story - Peregrine and Olivia - and am hopeful that someday Ms. Chase will write their story.  And, of course, any book with someone fascinated by Egypt is a real plus for me."

Jeanne loved it from start to finish: "I had to buy Lord Perfect, sight unseen, even before the AAR review, after reading and loving every word of the previous book, Mr. Impossible.  Fortunately, it turned out to be a fabulous read, surprisingly for its shorter 290 page count and its heftier price tag of $7.99, and I was relieved and thrilled it received a DIK, too. Delicious wit, great adventure, a memorably uptight hero, a droll non- virgin heroine, and terrific secondary characters.  Sexy and funny in spades, Loretta Chase certainly met my high expectations and has me waiting anxiously for the next Carsington series book masterpiece!"

Sandy agreed: "I'm with Ellen in loving Vanquished by Hope Tarr. But two books really stood out for me this year.  I loved Angels Fall by Nora Roberts, which I thought was a wonderfully written, terrific story of romantic suspense. But by a hair my book of the year is Loretta Chase's Lord Perfect.  It was witty, wise, and such a treat for anyone who loves smart romances featuring smart people falling in love.  She's simply the best at what she does and she continues to amaze me."

Historically there's been less agreement among ourselves as to which book was best for the past year. You have to go back five years, to 2002, to find a book more of us loved than this year: in that year there was agreement among seven of us that Suzanne Brockmann's Over the Edge reigned supreme. In the years in-between, agreement varied; in 2006 and 2005 four of us agreed on Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase and Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, respectively. Three of us loved Nonnie St. George's The Ideal Bride in 2004, and in 2003 there were two "winning" books - both Connie Brockway's Bridal Favors and Brockmann's Out of Control were chosen by three reviewers each.

In just about a week we'll announce the results in our annual reader poll and we can see how well our tastes match up with yours. Though voting ended before this column went online, I hope some of our choices will give you food for thought. Maybe you'll unearth a buried treasure or find a new favorite.

We know you all want to talk about your favorite romances, so we're not going to stop you! We can't see ourselves asking, "What did you think about my choice as best romance of the year?", so there will only be one individual question this time around (it's posed in a couple of paragraphs) - just an open forum for you to start talking about the books presented in the column and others you loved from 2006.

Those of you who kept up with the interim results we posted throughout the first few weeks of polling will surely note that many of the titles we loved are loved by many of you, although there are some glaring exceptions - titles that showed up several times in the final set of interim results that aren't among our favorites as presented above.

Here's the one question we would love you to specifically answer: Over which book did you most disagree with AAR? It could be a book we loved that you abhorred, or a book you adored that we panned...or both.

Again, we ask only that question in particular...in general feel free to talk about the books you loved from last year; you'll probably convince someone to try a book they hadn't considered; in fact, if reading this column does that for you, we're thrilled.

 

Blythe Barnhill

 

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