AAR Staff Top Ten Favorites: Caroline’s Picks

again Everybody has had so many interesting ideas for how to choose a top ten – breaking down by genre, assuming “pocket copies” of classics, choosing only books which haven’t been listed by other bloggers – so I apologize for using yet another methodology. I’ve chosen books which were so good that I have or would recommend them to non-romance readers. These are books which, in my opinion, stand as books, enjoyable and even lovable by people who will cut them no slack for genre conventions. I hope you love them as well!

Again – Kathleen Gilles Seidel

Again is a true buried treasure: an A grade here at AAR and my personal pick for single best romance ever, and yet it isn’t even in print. Seidel transports you into the meticulously researched world of a historical soap opera called My Lady’s Chamber (think Downton Abbey, but Regency), written by Jenny Cotton and starring Alec Cameron. I love Alec, a natural leader unable to ignore the problems at work causing Jenny distress (boy, could my workplace use a man like that!). Jenny is creative, intelligent, and gifted at her job. It is fascinating to watch Jenny’s real-life relationships play out in her characters. When one of her soap characters does something wonderful, and you realize that on some level Jenny’s falling for Alec… it’s just magic.

janeeyre

 

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

Austen is fine, but my all-time favorite “classic” romance is Jane Eyre, hands down. Bronte’s an incredible writer, and Jane’s a fully-realized character I’d love to know in real life. She has an entertaining snarky streak and a lifelong struggle to control it (as a young girl cautioned that naughty children go to hell, Jane pragmatically decides that her best course of action is to “keep in good health, and not die.”) She meets her match in Rochester, whose dark, sarcastic humor is far more compelling to me than a dozen brooding grumps. The romance is the most famous part of the story, but I also love watching Jane and Rochester grow. By the end of the story, she’s ready to meet Rochester as an equal – the best kind of HEA.

welcometotemptation

 

Welcome to Temptation – Jennifer Crusie

This book makes my list because it’s funny as heck, but it never forces the cast to break character to create that humor. Sophie Dempsey is trying to break with her family’s con past, but her sister’s plot to make a porn film throws Sophie into conflict with Temptation’s mayor, Phin Tucker. The two have ridiculous chemistry: Sophie can’t resist the right-side-of-the-tracks “town boy” who represents everybody who’s ever screwed over people like her, and Phin can’t keep away from the woman with the unforgettable discovery fantasy – not even when a dead body turns up. For the dysfunctional workings of a ridiculous small-town city council, for the movie Hot Fleshy Thighs, and for the best, most true-to-character sex scenes I’ve ever read, Welcome to Temptation makes the list.

gamesofcommand

 

Games of Command – Linnea Sinclair

This is the most recent read on my list, but I loved it so much that it shot up the charts. In addition to a sci-fi setting, which I’m partial to, this book has one of my favorite tropes: a hero desperately in love with the heroine but unable to speak or act on it. Admiral Branden Kel-Paten is a biocybe, a human with computer and machine augmentation, and the emotions he’s not supposed to feel for Captain Tasha Sebastian are enough to get him reprogrammed. He hides them so well that Tasha has no idea why he’s always over her shoulder. Her boggled reaction to the reveal actually made me set the book down for an “Awwww!” moment. Add in the interesting, original action-adventure plot, and you have a great top-10 read.

 

morethanamistress

 

More than a Mistress – Mary Balogh

Regencies are full of of heroes who offer the heroines carte blanche and heroines, even thoroughly compromised ones, who earn their HEAs by refusing until the heroes return with a better offer. Balogh was the first author I read who allowed her heroines made the “wrong” decision. I love the fact that the protagonists, Jane and Jocelyn, solidify their relationship while Jane is acting as mistress – how revolutionary to imply that the mistress relationship allowed Jane and Jocelyn to find their HEA! I truly believed in the cozy, comfortable home they created together, and although I was delighted when they “put a ring on it,” it was just because I wanted their future to be easier. Balogh convinced me that the two of them had won regardless.

 

onegoodturn

 

One Good Turn – Carla Kelly

I suspect that when it comes to Top 100 polling, Carla Kelly suffers from having a general outstanding backlist rather than the one knockout book which everyone has read. I wanted to start a campaign wherein all Carla Kelly fans agree to vote for the same book so we can finally get her back on the list. Then Lee put Miss Whittier Makes A List on her Top 10, which is a great book, but I had known since I started planning this list that I’d have to pick One Good Turn. I guess we’ll just have to push for two Kelly titles!

The sequel to Libby’s London Merchant, One Good Turn is a Regency which features the rejected hero from that book and my pick for strongest romance heroine, Liria Valencia. In the interest of not spoiling Libby, I’ll be general here. There is nothing, simply nothing, like watching resilient Liria rise from the ashes of her previous life and transform the hero through her own dignity and quiet strength. Her response to the question of why she kept her son, a product of rape, is one of the few lines of romance novel dialogue which ever made me cry. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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Mr. Impossible – Loretta Chase

This book previously appeared on Heather’s Top 10, but since it still meets my criteria I kept it anyway. While I’ve come pretty conspicuously out of the Kelly fangirl closet, I’m actually not generally a Chase fan. This is the only Chase book I’ve ever kept, and I did it for the same reason Heather did: I love Rupert and Daphne, the English odd couple forced to team up for an adventure story in 1820s Egypt. More to the point, I love Rupert, who matches Daphne’s intellectual intelligence with his own firecracker mix of street smarts, people smarts, and esoteric academic knowledge. If the Scarlet Pimpernel and Miles Vorkosigan had a baby, it might act something like Rupert Carsington. If that weird image isn’t enough to make you want to try this book, I have no idea what it will take!

ithadtobeyou

 

It Had To Be You – Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“I guess we’re oil and water.” “I’d say we’re more like gasoline and a blowtorch.” It Had To Be You set my standard for how smart and sexy contemporary romantic comedy could be. There’s no better love/hate romance than Phoebe Somerville, the bombshell blonde who inherits her father’s NFL team, and Dan Calebow, the coach who can’t believe he’s going to have to work for her. I love watching Phoebe come into her own, learning to show off her brains as well as her bust, and discovering that in spite of her expectations, she can live up to her looks in bed – with Dan, of course. Dan, who seems at first like he might be an 80s jerk hero, learns to respect Phoebe, and even finds a soft spot for her ridiculous little dog Pooh.

 

annaandthefrench

 

Anna and the French Kiss – Stephanie Perkins

It is so hard to find a YA story which avoids wallowing in melodrama but still manages to tell a story which is true to the teen experience (which, to be completely honest, tends to melodrama!). American Anna is sent to Paris for her senior year at boarding school, where she discovers the joys and pains of expat life and falls like a rock for the gorgeous Etienne St. Clair. This book is a bit of everything – a fish-out-of-water story, a coming-of-age story, and a lovely and credible teen romance, all set against the detailed, well-researched backdrop of the City of Lights.

 

myfairconcubine

 

My Fair Concubine – Jeannie Lin

Number ten… number ten… argh! How to fill the last slot on a list like this? I have so many authors I haven’t fit in yet, so let me at least take a moment to blabber out some of the books I considered for this final spot: Patricia Potter’s Notorious, Sherry Thomas’s Ravishing the Heiress, Karyn Langhorne’s Unfinished Business, Judy Cuevas’s Dance, and Suzanne Brockmann’s Heart Throb.

I finally settled on My Fair Concubine because it’s the book I would recommend to shatter numerous romance stereotypes. It’s a Harlequin category, which to most people means dukes and billionaires, with the closest thing to “diversity” being the occasional Greek, Italian, or sheikh. It still entertains me to walk down the Harlequin Historicals aisle and see “Regency,” “Western,” “Medieval,” and then all of a sudden “Chinese Tang Dynasty.” Thank goodness for the editor who took a chance on Jeannie Lin!

My Fair Concubine is a Pygmalion story about a Chinese nobleman, Fei Long, who makes over the tea shop girl Yan Ling as a substitute “princess” for a marriage alliance with foreign warlords. In an an industry full of wallpaper romances and modern characters in historicals, Lin’s books stand out for having characters who don’t think or talk like the cast of Friends. Since both Yan Ling and I knew about the same amount of Chinese court etiquette, I enjoyed learning alongside her. And I’m always a sucker for romances in which the heroes fall for the heroines but have to hold themselves back.

So those are my top ten romances. What do you think? Do you like any of them for reasons I haven’t listed here, or do you hate any of them and think I’m nuts? Please let me know in the comments!

- Caroline Russomanno

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31 Responses to “AAR Staff Top Ten Favorites: Caroline’s Picks”

  1. HazelB says:

    I’m so happy to see that you have Kathleen Gilles Seidel at the top of your list! I love Again and have re-read it many times. I don’t think Seidel ever got the attention she deserved and, unfortunately, she is no longer writing romance. Summer’s End is more women’s fiction, but I liked it a lot.

    • CarolineAAR says:

      I paid whatever it cost to get her entire backlist on Amazon and Ebay, including all the old Harlequin single titles. I think she’s incredible. I hope she’ll be able to regain control of some of her old rights and have a second shot with e-books.

      I nearly put Summer’s End on my list. That’s a fabulous book as well.

  2. Joane says:

    Each week I look forward to see anyone’s Picks.
    Some of the books in this list are favourites of mine (for instance, ‘It had to be you’ or ‘Welcome to Temptation’).
    So, I think I will certainly try those I haven’t read yet. ‘Anna and the French Kiss’ is already on my TBR pile.
    And then I’ll try to find ‘Games of command’ and ‘Again’. Both sound very interesting!
    As always, thank you AAR Staff, for your lists.

  3. LeeB. says:

    Excellent choices Caroline! I totally agree with your comment about Carla Kelly having an outstanding backlist. All authors should be so lucky!

    Jane Eyre — total page turner!

  4. Wendy says:

    I look for Again every time I hit the UBS. One day maybe…

  5. maggie b. says:

    I love Seidel Summer’s End is my favorite by her though I also love, love, love “Shut up and wear beige.” More than a Mistress is a favorite of mine by Balogh and I also love It Had to Be You by SEP. Add my to the fans of Jeannie Lin though my fave there is either “Butterfly Swords” or “The Dragon and the Pearl”. Jennifer Cruise and Carla Kelly are also faves, so I share a lot of your tastes. I think the hardest part about these lists is that they are just too short. Maybe we should do a top 100?????

    • CarolineAAR says:

      I still haven’t read Butterfly Swords but I’m looking forward to it. This one slightly edged Dragon for me because it works more easily as a stand-alone.

      The list felt too short for me too! You can see that I had to squeeze a few extra books on there.

  6. renee says:

    I love your list and want to mention that if anyone enjoys audiobooks both Welcome to Temptation and It had to be You are absolutely fabulous listens.

  7. Blackjack1 says:

    This was an eclectic list for me as some I haven’t read, such as Lin’s, Seidel’s and Kelly’s. For Carly Kelly, I’ve only read _Reforming Lord Ragsdale_ and despite popular opinion, I wasn’t overwhelmed by it and haven’t returned to any more of hers. I’m not sure if it is a typical book of hers though and am still open to reading more.

    Some of them I fully endorse and they appear high on my list of romances, like _More than a Mistress_ (very nice review of it!) and _Mr. Impossible_, though for the Chase book I did actually find this book to be fairly similar in tone and characterization to many others of hers. There are a couple I didn’t care for particularly, such as Phillips’s _It Had to Be You_ and _Welcome to Temptation_. I love many of Phillips’s books but not _It Had to Be You_. It’s interesting though to see the lists each Tuesday!

    • CarolineAAR says:

      Thanks for the compliment about the Balogh review!

      I wonder sometimes if I’m sentimental about It Had To Be You because it was my first romance novel. For me, it continues to hold up, but it might be bringing back that feeling of “I’ve found my genre!” that I had when I first read it.

      • Blackjack1 says:

        Yes, such a wonderful review of Balogh’s book – my very favorite of her novels, and so very happy to see it in your Top 10. I completely agree with your interpretation of the freedom to love outside of marriage plot here.

        _It Had to Be You_ was my very first Phillips’s novel and I remember feeling a little jolted by her style and the uncomfortable gender politics of the busty and ditzy blonde in provocative clothing. Now that I’ve read most of Phillips’s books and love so many of them, and have come to appreciate her style and voice as a writer, I think this is one that deserves a rereading for me, as I’m curious if I would feel differently about it now. Thanks for the great list today!

        • NBLibGirl says:

          I couldn’t have said it better than Blackjack1 (in fact it is a little scary how close our opinions of this list is) so thanks for the great list!

          I love the same Balogh and Chase titles you mention, for the same reasons.

          I love SEP and Crusie as well, although I need to go back to these two particular titles since neither registered high on initial reads for me. My Kelly foray was Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand and it was ok but I didn’t think have to read more; but will give these other two or three titles a try . . . in fact Amazon has One Good Turn for only 2.99. Do I need to read Libby’s London Merchant first?

          Kathleen Gillies Seidel, Linnea Sinclair and Jeannie Lin are now on my tbr. Anna and the French Kiss have been on it awhile. Thanks again!

  8. Aida says:

    @Caroline. I also loved “It Had To Be You” by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. But really! What is that with the new book cover? It’s so … boobsy! Are they recruiting male readers now, the ones who read Juggs?

  9. HeatherS AAR says:

    I adore your list and descriptions, Caroline! You articulate so well what works in each book. I recently read One Good Turn and loved it. Had I read it prior to forming my top 10 list it might very well have been on mine.

    More Than a Mistress was my first Balogh and nothing I’ve read of hers since that one has come close to the loveliness that is that book, though I’ve liked many others she has written.

    And since Crusie and SEP are always favorites of mine, I’m adding your other choices to my TBR list pronto!

  10. KarenB says:

    I’ve been following this blog for a few years now, but this is the first time I’ve ever posted! Caroline, you have my top 2 favorite authors and many other favorites on your list! (I feel like a twin in another dimension).

    I have all of Kathleen Seidel’s books and love her writing. I can’t pick just one favorite! I really enjoy A Risk Worth Taking, More Than You Dreamed, Summer’s End, and A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity. What I like so much about her writing is watching her character’s struggles as they deal with real life conflicts. Some of them may be very successful and even wealthy, but that is incidental to the conflicts in her stories. In Summer’s End, one of the female protagonists is a Olympic figure skater — but the story is about her place in her family and how she relates to others in her family, how they relate to her, and how she learns to grow up. These are the type of conflicts that are part of the human life. Ms. Seidel creates tension and drama with ordinary human problems — and I do love her characters (a country music star, the daughter of cult fantasy writer, a soap opera writer, a Miss America runner-up…) and settings –a soap opera set, a farm in Kansas where they dig up an old riverboat, a logging town in Oregon, the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota. I read somewhere that she once wrote a book about a circus, but couldn’t get it published. I’d love to read that book!

    Carly Kelly is my other favorite, and I have all of her books also. I’d probably agree more with Miss Whittier Makes a List as a favorite — what romance! A young Quaker girl, a British sea captain, a shipwreck, spying, Regency England, and the heartbreaking quandry of the “list” a la O.Henry’s Gift of the Magi. Ms. Kelly typically writes about ordinary people in extraordinary situations — often about war and battle, and its effects on survivors. She has a great sense of the absurd that she must use to write some of her characters. I always enjoy her settings as well, because they are so well described and set appropriately for the historical times. (Borrowed Light and Enduring Light are two of my favorites).

    Jennifer Crusie, Loretta Chase, & SEP are all favorites for their comic voices. I enjoy all of your picks, though probably would pick Fast Women by Crusie (love the detective agency), The Lion’s Daughter (love the setting – Albania) by Chase, and Heaven Texas (love the absurdity with the cutest ending ever) by SEP.

    Mary Balogh’s has a unique voice, and her story is compelling and sweet in More than a Mistress (I have to be mundane and tie it with Simply Dangerous).

    I’m going now to reserve Jane Eyre from the library– haven’t read it since I was a child. It sounds wonderful — I just remember the bare bones of the story!

    • CarolineAAR says:

      Welcome and thanks for your thoughtful comments! It’s fun to hear your reasons for liking the same books.

      • KarenB says:

        thanks for you kind response — I sure wandered off in my reply.

        I do want to let you know that I really liked your method for choosing your books — that you would recommend them to a non-romance reader. I know that I’m really careful about suggesting romances to those who are uninitiated. I think your selection of Again at the top of your list is great — it’s a wonderful book to dispel misconceptions so many have about the romance genre!

  11. Suzanne Noll says:

    Love all the books on your list!

    Again by Kathleen Gilles Seidel is my favorite of all time too. The Same Last Name, a Harlequin, was my favorite for a long time, until she published her longer novels.

    Also enjoyed Lola and the Boy Next Door, a sequel to Anna and the French Kiss. Looking forward to the third book in that series.

  12. Jo-Ann W. says:

    Your list rocks. I’ve enjoyed reading all the others, but this is the one I had to comment on. I like that you (and I) choose some different books as favorites out of an author’s more popular favorites (such as Welcome to Temptation, One Good Turn, and More Than a Mistress). I prefer Jane Eyre to Austen’s books (though I like them a lot). My mother has only read one book in her life (not sure I’m not adopted…), Jane Eyre and she’s read it three times. I would go with Lord Perfect over Mr. Impossible, and Dream a Little Dream over It Had to Be You, but they are definitely runners-up. I have Games of Command impatiently waiting in my TBR and due to this blog, I just ordered Again from PBS and will be buying Anna and the French Kiss. Jeannie Lin has always been on my radar but I’ve been trying to get my TBR down a bit before getting new-to-me authors. We’ll see how long that lasts…. Thanks for an excellent post.

    Oh, and I agree, the audios of Welcome to Temptation and It Had to Be You are some of the best listening out there.

    • CarolineAAR says:

      I’m always glad to find a book twin! I hope you like the new ones you’ve ordered!

  13. Victoria'S says:

    One of the many things I love about this site is the new-to-me authors I learn about. I have just finished Kathleen Gillies Seidel’s “Keep Your Mouth Shut and Wear Beige” and my oh my did I love it. I am about to emulate CarolineAAR and start hunting down her backlist. Not only am I looking forward to great reading, but the thrill of the hunt. Thanks for all you do to enhance the reading experience.

  14. I’ve read five of the books on your list, and enjoyed all of them. Four of the five were keepers, and Seidel’s Again is probably my favorite of these. I’ll be paying more attention to your reviews in the future.

    • Oops, I forgot Jane Eyre was on the list. In that case, I read six, and that’s the only one I didn’t care for. The mystery had been spoiled for me in advance. Perhaps if it had not been, I would have liked it more.

  15. Carrie says:

    Wow! I’ve read 7 of your top 10! I don ‘t think that’s happened before here on AAR for me. :-)

    I’m thrilled to see Linnea Sinclair make another Top Ten list, too. Games of Command is my sentimental favorite of her’s, although Finder’s Keepers is right up there nose-and-nose.

    I just read Mr. Impossible and enjoyed it, and agree with you on Carla Kelly! I love One Good Turn.

    I didn’t love Welcome to Temptation. I barely made it through after three tries, but I do love Faking It!

    Great list. thank you.

    • CarolineAAR says:

      I think Crusie’s tone changed dramatically over the course of her writing. I find that I tend to like books from the same time period – for instance, I don’t like her later Bet Me. But her fundamentally excellent writing and plotting comes through throughout her career.

      I haven’t read Finders Keepers but I’ll look for it!

  16. Your style is so unique in comparison to other folks I’ve read stuff from. Thanks for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I will just bookmark this page.

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