AAR Staff Top Ten Favorites – Lea’s Picks

keeperofthedream As I’m sure a number of other AAR reviewers discovered when choosing their Top Ten Favorite romance books, it’s not an easy task. I whittled my list down to twenty and realized some of my absolute favorites still had to be marked off the list. I wondered, should I include those ultimate favorites from ten years ago when I was most passionate about the romance genre? Or, now that my tastes have evolved, should I choose newer discoveries that more closely match my tastes today? And since I listen to so many audiobooks, how could I keep those with excellent audio deliveries from influencing my choice of print books? Not easy. But then I realized just how much my Top Ten audiobooks list would differ from those books available in print format only and decided to not mix the two. I’ll save my list of top audiobooks for a Speaking of Audiobooks column.

As I reduced the list to only ten books, I decided to include a number of romances that were A+ reads years ago and a number that are my first choices today. After painfully marking a good number of extremely good, completely satisfying reads off the list, here are my Top Ten Favorites in no particular order.

1. Keeper of the Dream by Penelope Williamson

It’s been nine years since I read Keeper of the Dream and it is the only book on my Top Ten list that I haven’t read a second time. It was such a perfectly blissful reading experience that I fear even the possibility of losing the magic with a reread. A medieval tale with a number of the usual plot elements including the conqueror and daughter of the defeated lord, it’s not usual at all and its ending haunted me for months. My “fantastic book” hangover lasted all those months as well since nothing came close to my experience of reading Keeper of the Dream.

 
 
ithadtobeyou 2. It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Philips

When I think laugh-out-loud romance, I think SEP. Ten of her titles (all published before 2007) sit on my DIK list but It Had to Be You, the first in the Chicago Stars series, sits nearest the top. Professional football coach Dan Calebow locks horns with the team’s seeming bimbo of a new owner Phoebe Somerville, who not only inherits the team, but knows nothing about football and never wants to. Contrary to Keeper of the Dream, I have read or listened to It Had to Be You at least eight times. And I laugh just as much each time.

 
 
todiefor 3. To Die For by Linda Howard

Linda Howard showcases her versatility and talent for writing hilarious books with this 2005 contemporary/romantic suspense tale. Perfectly successful, blond, former cheerleader, and fitness club owner Blair Mallory witnesses a murder and Detective Wyatt Bloodsworth steps in to investigate. Blair and Wyatt have a background – he walked away from their burgeoning relationship without a word years earlier. It took me months to read To Die For as I doubted my ability to tolerate a perfect cheerleader of a heroine. Boy, was I wrong. This is another book I have read or listened to many times – seven to be exact. It’s sequel, Drop Dead Gorgeous, is thoroughly entertaining as well.

 
 

outofcontrol 4. Out of Control by Suzanne Brockmann

Although fourth in the Troubleshooters series, Out of Control was the first of the series for me (I read the series out of order). I was stunned by just how thoroughly I enjoyed this detailed military romance and felt it rightfully deserved its 2002 Best Romance and Best Hero awards here at AAR. I was simply amazed at Brockmann’s storytelling and the fact that the book featured four different couples when I usually don’t care to read books or watch movies that feature more than one couple. It’s suspense all the way with the present day romances between leads Ken and Savannah, secondary romance players Jones and Molly (my favorite romance of the book), the WWII romance Brockmann works so seamlessly into her books, and the developing relationship between Alyssa and Sam. There’s not a bit of fluff in its 450 pages and I was completely immersed every step of the way.

 
 

trueconfessions 5. True Confessions by Rachel Gibson

Rachel Gibson is one of those authors who writes books I love nearly each and every time. At least a dozen of her books rate a personal
DIK and I had to choose just one for my Top Ten to showcase my love for her work. True Confessions features tabloid reporter Hope Spencer who moves to Gospel, ID looking for a way to rid herself of writer’s block (and hide as well) and Sheriff Dylan Taber, the single parent of a seven-year-old, who returned to Gospel after serving ten years as a LAPD homicide detective. Each time I read True Confessions, I find myself laughing all over again while being caught up in a one of the best small town romances I’ve read.

 
 
loverawakened 6. Lover Awakened by J.R. Ward

When I started reading the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, I wasn’t a fan of paranormal romance or vampires. Lover Awakened is the third book in that series and features the baddest brother of them all, Zsadist, who is also the most tortured (literally) hero of my reading experience. His relationship with Bella is the things romance legends are made of – deep mutual attraction and admiration moving towards a romance that seems to defy odds. Although Z and Bella’s relationship is front and center just as you want, it is the development of Z as a person and his relationship with his twin brother that provide the most touching moments. It won AAR’s Best Romance award in 2006.

 
 

allieverwanted 7. All I Ever Wanted by Kristan Higgins

Kristan Higgins writes contemporary romance that reads a little like women’s fiction. Typically the stories center around the heroine yet contain a romance that always packs a punch leaving my need for romance immensely satisfied. Ms. Higgins writes funny, heartwarming stories with flawed vulnerable heroines and everyday men who end up being sexy as hell. All ten of the titles on her backlist are A reads for me – I adore her writing that much. All I Ever Wanted was my first Higgins book featuring an ever-so-likable heroine who has loved her boss for years only to get the news that he’s engaged. She starts looking elsewhere for a man, including the new veterinarian who truly doesn’t seem interested. I found myself laughing – a lot and crying at times as well. After finishing, I purchased every book on Higgins backlist and treated myself to a glom like I haven’t experienced in years.

 
 

lordofscoundrels 8. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

An eternal favorite that has captured the top spot in AAR’s Top 100 Romance polls since 2000, I remain amazed at its originality each time I pick it up to reread. Romance writing at its best, Lord of Scoundrels is one of the wittiest books I have had the pleasure of reading. Hard-headed Dain starts out as one appalling guy who ends up looking rather adorable in the end but it isn’t through an unrealistic personality change. He remains a man’s man throughout but is rather befuddled at Jessica’s influence on him. His thought life is hilarious and the couple’s repartee is top notch. Dain’s slow but believable evolvement is the main subject matter here as Ms. Chase takes an ever-so-typical tormented hero and makes the experience entirely atypical.

 
 

Match Me If You Can(1) 9. Match Me If You Can by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The Chicago Stars series ranks two Top Ten entries. SEP pens contemporary romance that just fits completely with my romantic soul. Annabelle is a start-up matchmaker looking for that one big client to get her business off to a resounding start. Heath is the big name sports agent who could do just that for her. To Heath, Annabelle is a badly dressed owner of a screwball operation he has no intention of doing business with. Their romance is fresh, unique, laugh-out-loud, and full of outright fun. There is a secondary romance worthy of its own book and the heroine of It Had to Be You scores as the powerful woman who hates to do business with Heath. All together, for this SEP fan, it’s a priceless experience each time I revisit it.

 
 

surrender 10. Surrender by Pamela Clare

Set during the French and Indian War, Surrender brings great historical detail, complete with the time’s contentious political environment, to romance. The characters are written true to their time as well with hero Iain Mackinnon as the man forced into service to the British crown. His assignment? Form a group of Rangers to fight as warriors with great stealth rather than as regimented soldiers. Going against orders, Iain rescues Annie from an Indian massacre and the romance begins. It’s full of adventure, multi-layered characters, and, best of all, intense romance. Iain ranks as my favorite hero – period.

– Lea Hensley

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40 Responses to “AAR Staff Top Ten Favorites – Lea’s Picks”

  1. wendy says:

    I’ve read (and enjoyed) all but #1.

  2. maggie b. says:

    I’ve read (and DIK’d) all but 1,8 and 10. I am going to have to look up Keeper of the Dream as it sounds intriguing.

  3. Melinda says:

    Once again I am amazed at how our tastes are almost exactly the same. To Die For sits at the top of my list because it touches every one of my feel good buttons – the hysterically funny dialog, the steamy relationship, the suspense. I think I laughed at every page turn. Now to go read the Williamson to make it 10 for 10!

    • Lea Hensley says:

      I know, we have been crazy about the same books for years now! And since we share a love for audiobooks, many of these titles are ones we love in audio format as well.

  4. AARJenna says:

    I think I’ve found my DIK-soul twin. I had two of these on my Top 10 list as well. “Out of Control” – which I read out of order – is my favorite Brockmann book, and “Lover Awakened” my favorite Black Dagger Brotherhood. I also had a Kristan Higgins book, albeit a different title (“The Best Man”), and a Linda Howard book (“Mackenzie’s Mountain”). So now knowing how similar our tastes are, I’m going to have to check out the others. Thanks for sharing!

    • Lea Hensley says:

      Okay – checking out your Top Ten list NOW. And this is so good to know on another front, I’ll be watching your reviews more closely now.

      It’s crazy but I don’t think reading the first six Brockmann books out of order made that much of a difference when it came to all out enjoyment although it would have been nice to see Alyssa and Sam’s relationship develop chronologically. And knowing Max’s background with Gina (Over the Edge) is a must (IMHO) for reading their story in Breaking Point – but that’s book 9 so I digress….

  5. Lea Hensley says:

    Keeper of the Dream was released in 1992 and has a bit of a 90s feel to it – which I appreciate. For some reason, many romances written in the 90s are favorites of mine. Penelope Williamson (The Outsider, Heart of the West) was simply one of the best romance writers around at the time. She quit writing romance in the late 1990s best I can tell.

    Every one of her books has taken me on an unusual trip with fascinating characters. My second favorite to Keeper of the Dream is The Passions of Emma. It runs close to general fiction but contains a highly unusual romance that it still believable.

    And, yes, I wish, I wish for her books in audio format!

    • Mary says:

      I agree with you about Penelope Williamson. I read everyone of her books and loved each one of them. Many of your Top 10 authors made my Top Ten as well (just different books – it is hard to choose isn’t it???).

      • Lea Hensley says:

        I have yet to read Beloved Rogue, Heart’s Beguiled (a used PB starts at $130.00), or Wings of Desire (under Elizabeth Lambert) – all 1980s books and none are available as eBooks. Just ordered used copies of the Lambert and Beloved Rogue and my booklist says I have Hearts Beguiled somewhere, but where?!

    • Eliza says:

      Like others here, I enjoy many of the same books you do. I was, however, particularly interested to see Penelope Williamson as #1 on your list since she was recently suggested to me for “The Outsider,” which I now have a copy of, along with “Heart of the West,” both waiting (impatiently) in the wings to be read. I already had “The Passions of Emma” on my “to find” list, so now I’ll be sure to add “Keeper of the Dream,” as well. Thank you!

      • Lea Hensley says:

        Although I truly love ALL Penelope Williamson books, Heart of the West is my least favorite. I know it is many Williamson fans’ favorite. Still very, very good. You are in for a treat!

  6. leslie says:

    True Confessions is my favorite Rachel Gibson. I really like her Idaho books.

    I think Lord of Scoundrels might be the best romance I’ve ever read……it’s neck and neck with Mary Jo Putney’s The Rake and the Reformer.

    • Lea Hensley says:

      I just looked for The Rake and the Reformer and see it is out of print. I’ve not read much (if any) Putney so I may be seeking out a used copy. I need to give her a try!

      • leslie says:

        It has been rereleased as The Rake. MJP cleaned it up and added content….it should be easy to find. I also love her Waterloo romance Shattered Rainbows.

      • Renee says:

        I agree with Leslie. The Rake is excellent. I also enjoyed Thunder and Roses by Putney as well.

    • Joane says:

      Certainly, Putney’s ‘Rake’ is one of my favourites and it could easily be on my own Top 10. One of the best ever, IMO, with Flowers from the Storm. But they are ‘serious historicals’, not ‘light historicals’ witty & fun like ‘Lord of Scoundrels’. A complete different league, for me.

      • Lea Hensley says:

        I purchased Putney’s The Rake last night and started reading it as well. Thanks Leslie, Renee, and Joane!

  7. Brenda says:

    Surprise, surprise eight of your Top Ten choices rank highly with me as well. :)

    The most common denominator being laughter – I want to laugh while enjoying my favorites and you’ve included some of the very best when it comes to that aspect.

    I’ve enjoyed all of the reviewers lists – I think I’ve agreed with at least one choice if not more every time – which means my personal list is way over ten. I’m glad I don’t have to narrow it down! :D

    • Lea Hensley says:

      Surprise, surprise for sure. Ha! I was surprised by how many laugh-out-loud books ended up on this list. But, you know, when a book makes you laugh heartily time after time over the years, that’s nothing but good memories. There are a good number of contemporaries that attempt to be humorous with screwball setups or wacky characters but far fewer that actually make me laugh.

  8. LeeF says:

    Lea, I just knew when I saw that you were posting your top 10 that we would have several matches- of authors, if not books. Well, I have read 9 of the 10 authors and you have reminded me of several to put on my “to be bought” list. Not to mention the “to be reread” list!

    I remember gobbling up the three Penelope Williamson books that my library has when I first started reading romance- she is fabulous. I thought I would say Hearts of the West was my favorite but you mentioned The Passions of Emma and I am torn. Love how she lets people have more than one “great love”.

    Brockmann’s Troubleshooter series is only one of two that I own all of the books. SO tough to pick a favorite- each one is enjoyably complex and well crafted. Rachel Gibson and SEP (along with Jennifer Cruisie) are my go to comfort reads (as well as comfort listens). Linda Howard is the toughest one to choose- gotta go with Kill and Tell (I have more of her audiobooks than any other author in my Audible library).

    On Goodreads you have recommended Pamela Clare many times- I suspect I will listen to one of her audiobooks before I get around to reading her in paperback.

    Thanks for a great list!

    • Lea Hensley says:

      Williamson just doesn’t disappoint, does she?

      I have started reading the Troubleshooter series over – this time in order. I’ll read rather than listen to nearly all of the first six and then start listening at book 7 when the narration becomes reliable and enjoyable.

      Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation almost made it on this list. It is probably #11! I have many Howard faves – it seems that I like just about any flavor she writes. Some of my favorites include Death Angel, After the Night, Dream Man, A Game of Chance, Kill and Tell, and on and on…

  9. Bee says:

    I’ve been reading all the Top 10 lists and this is the first one that I’ve read all ten of the books! I have a tattered copy of Keeper of the Dream that I traded for a few years ago. Now I have to reread.

    • Lea Hensley says:

      I think I have finally talked myself into my first reread of Keeper of the Dream too. I’m gonna time it just right though… No distractions.

  10. LinnieGayl says:

    Wow! So many of these are favorites of mine. It makes me think I should take a chance and read Surrender by Pamela Clare and Keeper of the Dream by Penelope Williamson.

    I also struggled with the thing about audio versus print. I started out writing comments about audio versions and then just decided to go straight with print.

    • HeatherS AAR says:

      I loved Surrender too! I ended up including Ride the Fire on my list, but Surrender is great also.

    • Lea Hensley says:

      I seriously love SEP in print but the 15 or so SEP audios narrated by Anna Fields are so fantastic that I know my extreme love of those tales is in part due to the ease of fully enjoying them at any time when I’m driving the car or cleaning the kitchen or exercising and so on and so on.

    • Lea Hensley says:

      LG – I can email my review of the audio version of Surrender if you want to seriously consider listening to it. Of course, I think you thoroughly know my reading tastes by now!

      • LinnieGayl says:

        I’d love to read your review of the audio version. Thanks, Lea.

        And yes, I sooo love the Anna Fields versions of SEP’s books. Such a loss.

  11. HeatherS AAR says:

    Super list, Lea! I consider many of these to be DIKs as well, which is why I’m only a few books away from being on that show Hoarders. I have Penelope Williamson in my TBR Mountain, but haven’t yet read any books by her. This one sounds right up my alley. :)

    • Lea Hensley says:

      I understand the Hoarders comment! Fortunately an eBook reader and an iPod have convinced me to give up my closet full of paperbacks and hard copy audiobooks. However, not all of Williamson titles are in eBook format so I’m keeping all of those close.

  12. Aida says:

    “Keeper of the Dream”. I’ve forgotten this one when I made my Top 10 list (sorry Penelope Willamson); but this book is just magical!

    Raine and Arianna .. medieval England … bastard son … a reluctant princess … who was also a “seer” — but if she was a seer, why was she not able to foresee that she would go crazily inlove with Raine and thus not have given him such a hard time? Oh playing hard to get! One of my favorite games :)

    Amazon.com’s review said: “If you are a sucker for tortured heroes with hearts of gold then you will fall head over heels in love with Raine. If you love strong, intelligent heroines then Arianna will make you cheer. This novel has all the ingredients that make a romance perfect. If you need to be reminded of why you started to read romances in the first place then give this book a try.It will remind you …. Highly recommended!!!”

    What else can I say? I totally agree!

    • Lea Hensley says:

      Yay! Another Keeper of the Dream lover. Your use of “magical” in describing the book is perfect! It sounds like a regular Medieval but it’s not at all.

  13. Joane says:

    I’ve read 2,3,5,8 & 9, and I loved them all… so I guess our tastes are very much alike. I will copy your recommendations.
    ‘It had to be you’ would certainly be in my own Top Ten list. Linda Howard and Rachel Gibson would also be on my list, but I don’t know if the books you chose are the ones I loved most about them.

    • Joane says:

      I would like to add that this is -correct me if I’m wrong- the 5th list which contains ‘Lover Awakened’. It’s really ‘the’ AAR Staff’s favourite!
      Is it really that good? The best romance novel ever?
      The only Ward’s book I’ve read is ‘Dark Lover’ and I didn’t like it. I know, paranormal is not my cup of tea, so the problem is mine.
      Anyway, as I see that -at least- five of you recommend it, I’ll try it.

      • Lea Hensley says:

        Paranormal is not my first choice and I only read (listen to) the occasional series. So loving the Black Dagger Brotherhood series was a different experience. Lover Awakened still has the over-the-top slang with all the brothers’ weird names – those things have turned some readers away. These are alpha males and there’s violence – all things you saw in Dark Lover. To best enjoy Lover Awakened, I do recommend reading the second in the series, Lover Eternal, first – although since you have read the first, that may be adequate background. However Lover Eternal provides you with more background on Z that makes his character all the more fascinating when Lover Awakened opens.

        Best of luck!

  14. Becky says:

    I have only read 3 of the 10 books on your list (both SEP’s and Kristan Higgins’ “All I Ever Wanted”, but I have read “See Jane Score” by Rachel Gibson an loved it, so will include “True Confessions” on my TBR list. I also adore Pamela Clare’s I-Team series and the historicals I have read from her. The only series I haven’t read yet is the Mackinnon Rangers but they have been on my TBR for some time. I recently purchased the audio version of “Surrender” so will let Kaleo Griffith read it to me soon. I am going to check out the other books on your list, even “Lover Awakened” though I generally stay away from vampire books.

    Regarding “All I Ever Wanted”, while I don’t know if I would rank it as my favorite Kristan Higgins book, it does have one of the funniest (laugh out loud/full belly laugh funny) scenes of any book I’ve read…the turkey scene followed by the inept bandaging attempt. I’m laughing now just thinking about it. Of course, it turned into a very sweet scene which I also loved.

    • Lea Hensley says:

      I think it is the laughing fit I had in the turkey scene in All I Ever Wanted that convinced me to rank this one first. Although, seriously, I could have chosen any of the ten and still had a vastly favorite read!

  15. Maria Klingsporn says:

    From this list, I read the number: 2,4,6,8,9. I like each of these books. The rest of the list – to read.

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