Note: Laurie Gold has graciously agreed to share her Top Ten picks here this week. Longtime readers here will remember that Laurie founded All About Romance, and you will see many columns and reviews from her in our archives. Though Laurie retired from AAR in 2008, she now contributes to Heroes and Heartbreakers, and still has plenty of opinions on books. – Lynn
When Blythe asked me to write this blog, she sent me a link to AAR Reviewer Maggie’s entry. I immediately liked it because, like Maggie, I have an impossible number of favorites from which to choose, and thought her idea of sampling from among subgenres was smart. Here, then, are my top ten romances, culled from historical, contemporary, paranormal, and romantic suspense subgenres, with funny, sad, and an erotic option thrown in for good measure. And to make it perhaps more useful, more than once I went for a less well-known author/book.
European (Regency Era): Castles by Julie Garwood Romance perfection. Fun and funny, featuring lovable leads with great chemistry and well-defined personalities, as well as a terrific secondary cast who, while strong characters themselves, never overshadow Colin and Alessandra. Sexy and sweet, 1990s style love scenes, of just the right number that are also the perfect length. Alessandra’s idiosyncratic, almost OCD-like list-making, had me laughing during her how can it be sexy and funny? deflowering, and that Colin so totally “got” her that he was able to use one of her lists to help him realize and admit his love for her, made me love the slightly too stubborn man all the more.
European (Late or Post Regency Era): Breathless by Anne Stuart As I get older, I appreciate more and more the darkness in Stuart’s writing, and this book is the darkest of her historicals that I’ve read. Lady Miranda Rohan lives a quiet, ruined life. Little does she know that the man who rescues her after a carriage accident is responsible for her ruin. Lucien De Malheur, known among the ton as The Scorpion (remember the moral of The Scorpion and the Frog: It’s in the nature of scorpions to sting), set out to engage Miranda as part of his vengeful scheme to destroy her family. His plan is to manipulate her into marriage, after which he will leave her miserable and alone at his isolated Lake District estate. Clearly he has no idea with whom he’s messing, and she makes clear by the end of the book that he’s met his match. Some may find Lucien irredeemable—and indeed, some of his actions are breathtakingly reprehensible—I loved his romance with Miranda.
Medieval: Velvet Bond by Catherine Archer Medievals are often characterized by political marriages arranged by kings, and warfare, tourneys, and sword fights. What’s not to love? Not much, admittedly, but this medieval, while sharing a marriage-by-edict, is a much more personal story. After being found in a compromising position at court, Edward III orders Raynor, Baron Warwicke, to marry Lady Elizabeth. The baron considers himself a victim of Elizabeth’s impetuousness, and from then on, she can do no right. Although everyone but he can see her goodness, he assumes she is guilty of any number of crimes. Archer takes a time-honored premise and makes it exquisitely intimate and emotional.
Paranormal Historical: Bewitching by Jill Barnett Barnett’s versatility is among this book’s strongest points. She evokes laughter and tears…sometimes even juxtaposes them…in her story about a most stuffed-shirted duke and the pixie who turns his staid life upside down. And the lengths to which the hero, Alec, Duke of Belmore, is willing to go in an attempt to win back the heroine—and witch—Joyous MacQuarrie, after she leaves him for his failure to learn the value of love, lands this at the top of my list of “best grovels.” His transformation from autocratic stick-in-the-mud to “nice guy who appreciates whimsy” comes across wonderfully in the epilogue, which admittedly features a corny number of offspring.
Regency Romance: A Family for Gillian by Catherine Blair After Miss Gillian Harwell’s plan to avoid marriage by faking her own ruin backfires, she is sent off to the Irish countryside to marry the widowed Viscount Prescott Avery, who needs help raising his children. Avery is attracted to Gillian, but can’t figure out how to become intimate with her and not betray his first wife, so very different than his clever and lively new one. He’s passive-aggressive in his dealings with her—his sister is simply aggressive—and she is temperamentally unsuited to become a doormat. All of which means that as her feelings for her new husband grow, she learns to walk a fine line, hopeful that her common sense and humor will teach him that risk is involved if one is to live life to the fullest. It’s wonderful to watch that happen.
Steampunk/Victorian Romance: Soulless by Gail Carriger Carriger’s I-laughed-on-every-page debut perfectly blends romance, mystery, Victoriana, paranormal, and steampunk elements in a story about a woman born without a soul, able to negate paranormal powers with a touch. Her closest friend is a mincing elderly vampire, her love interest is a werewolf with an almost unfathomable Scottish burr, and her social-climbing mother and sister find her intelligence and lack of fashionability a terrible hindrance. Carriger is not a romance author (the series gets progressively more steampunkish, and her new series is YA), but her writing here is pitch-perfect. The best comparison I have come up with for her is trad Regency author Nonnie St. George.
Contemporary Romance: The Real Deal by Lucy Monroe Sometimes a book simply speaks to a reader in an incredibly personal way, regardless of its flaws. This one had some clunky writing, factual errors, and illustrated a lack of understanding about how business deals are done, but for whatever reason, whatever alchemy, it grabbed my imagination and never let go. The emotionality and romanticism of the two misunderstood, wounded leads in The Real Deal—a socially retarded genius and a businesswoman with massive self-esteem issues—won me over, and it didn’t hurt that the love scenes were to die for.
The Romantic Suspenses:
Contemporary Romantic Suspense: To Die For by Linda Howard I totally agreed with Ellen Michelletti’s AAR review that this is “the lightest suspense novel I’ve ever read.” To me it’s more the modern incarnation of a Tracy/Hepburn movie, perfectly matching two strong characters who fight their own, very funny, battle of the sexes. Detective Wyatt Bloodsworth is assigned investigate a murder attempt of an old flame, Blair Mallory, and hopes to reignite the fire between them. Blair is Southern, mouthy ex-cheerleader who owns a fitness center and drives an expensive car—you can picture her, can’t you?— and any man wanting to spend his life with her must be able to stand toe to toe or risk having his balls handed to him on a daily basis. Wyatt’s just that man, and he goes about proving to Blair delightfully.
Futuristic Romantic Suspense: Promises in Death by J.D. Robb Seven books from the In Death series sit on my DIK shelves. Choosing among them is next to impossible, so I went with Promises in Death because it is 28th in the series. That’s right…Robb (aka Nora Roberts) has continued to maintain the series’ quality well over a decade after its debut. How is this possible? Well, there’s always a great procedural to solve, and Eve’s relatively new marriage to Roarke keeps their intensity heightened. Slowly, and kicking and screaming—and often with great humor—Eve is learning to become a Human Being, all the while surrounded by an amazing and ever-growing cast of three-dimensional secondary characters. This book brings to the forefront one of the most intriguing of those secondaries, Chief Medical Examiner Morris, as Eve tries to solve the murder of his girlfriend, another cop with the NYPSD.
Science Fiction Erotic Romance: Dawn’s Awakening by Lora Leigh Leigh’s Breed series takes the science of kissing and spins it into a lengthy series of romances involving a genetically enhanced race of people created and routinely tortured by their creators. Eventually rescued, they remain feared and hunted. When a Breed kisses their one true mate, they release a hormone that turns them both into such walking erogenous zones that initially, non-consummation or time spent not mating is physically painful. Dawn, a cougar breed, and Seth, her human mate, were separated by Breed leadership who convinced him that, given the horrors of her life, a relationship with him would be too much for her to handle. Dawn never knew why he walked away, so their lack of mating is all the worse for her, and she determines to change that. Their story is filled with raunchy, vivid sex scenes, but it’s also surprisingly poignant and romantic, and also raises interesting questions of religion and philosophy.
Every time I go through a “top ten” exercise, I try to start fresh, so this list doesn’t look like any other top ten romances I’ve come up with before. Determining which erotic romance to include was particularly tough; Dawn’s Awakening is the only erotic romance on my DIK shelves, but because it’s a mainstream release, it is also the easy and “safe” choice. So many books remain left out that to avoid the temptation to second-guess myself, I sent this in moment I finished. If you’re interested in a list of all of my favorites, please visit me at Goodreads.
– Laurie Gold