Best of 2009, Reviewer’s Choice

I nearly always find writing the Reviewer’s Choice Column affirming (in a “See? There WERE some good books this year!” kind of way). And it’s always nice to have a column with unabashed gushing; often we keep that stuff under wraps. Unlike years past, we all managed to find favorites this year, and some of them were even the same ones.

St. Nachos by Z. A. Maxfield

Anne Marble:
Top pick: St. Nacho’s by Z.A. Maxfield

Anne has led the way with M/M reviews at AAR, and judging from some of our mail, we have some readers who really appreciate these reviews. It’s no surprise that her favorite from 2009 is an M/M romance. She loved that it was written in the first person (and stay tuned; a review is coming).

Three of our staff members chose paranormal novels this year.

As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason

Andi Davis:
Top pick: As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason
Runner up: What Happens in London by Julia Quinn.

“This was the last book of a series that I really loved and the finale was incredibly satisfying.”

Cindy Smith:
Top pick: Branded by Fire by Nalini Singh

“Changelings from different packs/species who have no choice but to work out their need for dominance in order to be together.  I loved that neither Mercy nor Riley gave up any part of who they are but were able to learn to respect and accept the strengths in each other.  It was refreshing to see a couple find a way to be together without either of them having to give up a certain amount of power.”

As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason

Emma Leigh:
Top pick: Beloved Vampire by Joey W. Hill

“It broke my paranormal slump with its amazing character depth and dialogue. I could also find no fault with the direction of the plot, which practically never happens!”

Three of our staff chose contemporary romances this year as well. There have definitely been some complaints that good contemporaries are getting harder to come by, especially for those who are not fans of romantic suspense. The evidence may be anecdotal, but the fact that they aren’t heavily represented this year seems to suggest that straight contemporaries really are a little harder to find.

LinnieGayl Kimmel:

Top pick: Vision in White by Nora Roberts

“My favorite romance is Vision in White by Nora Roberts. This book had so many features that I like. First, and most important,it was a straight contemporary romance (hooray for not a bit of a paranormal thread in it). I also loved the friendship between the four women, and the hero, Carter,  was nerdily divine.”

Abi Bishop:
Top pick: Start Me Up by Victoria Dahl

“I really, really miss contemporaries (and more particularly being spoilt for choice by them) and since Susan Elizabeth Phillips isn’t the SEP I’ve grown to love and Kristan Higgin’s book was just a pleasant but not spectacular read for me and Erin McCarthy has decided to focus on vampires and race car drivers, I could probably have had a really middling 2009. But Start Me Up was really romantic and pushed all of my buttons just right.”

Katie Mack:
Top pick: Under the Influence by Nancy Warren
Runner up: Hot Under Pressure by Kathleen O’Reilly

“Nowadays it seems harder and harder to find contemporary romances that don’t have suspense or paranormal elements, so when I find a really good one, I’m that much more ecstatic. Under the Influence fits that bill perfectly, and I had a smile on my face from start to finish. It’s a funny, sexy, and refreshingly modern version of the classic Opposites Attract story. Throw in a sexy and interesting secondary romance, and I was completely sold. Plus, I’m a sucker for gender role-reversal plots, so I loved the premise of a high-powered executive heroine falling for a bartender/beach bum hero.”

That leaves the historical romances, which took the lion’s share of the voting this year (with twice as many top picks as contemporaries and paranormals put together). More unusual for us is that four books got more than one vote.

Bessie Makris:
Top Pick: Silent on the Moor by Deanna Raybourn
Runners up: The Perfect Poison by Amanda Quick and Kindred in Death by J.D. Robb

Lea Hensley:
Top pick: To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt
Runner up: Practice Makes Perfect by Julie James

To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt is a solid number one pick for me.  I was fascinated with the badly scarred Alistair hiding away in his crumbling castle and loved every aspect of this tender yet sensual story.  While reading, I experienced one of my old romance highs I don’t seem to find often these days and it reminded me that it’s books
such as this that keep me reading romance.

“In second place is Practice Makes Perfect by Julie James  With just two contemporaries under her belt, Ms. James has worked her way firmly into a highly anticipated auto buy position for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed this battle between two attorneys vying for partnership in their firm.  This is by far my favorite contemporary of the year.”

Julia Quinn’s What Happens in London was chosen by two reviewers this year.

Jane Granville:

Top pick: What Happens in London by Julia Quinn

“I had a number of books I loved this year, but JQ’s What Happens in London was definitely up there on my list.  It just had everything I love about her writing, and was the epitome of a funny, light (but not fluffy) historical romance.”

Lynn Spencer:
Top pick: What Happens in London by Julia Quinn
Runners up: Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran, Freudian Slip by Erica Orlroff, and As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason

Lynn’s thoughts: “My number one pick for the year was What Happens in London by Julia Quinn.  That book flowed almost flawlessly for me.  The pieces fit together very well, and reading this one just made me feel happy.

Bound By Your Touch by Meredith Duran – a very close second; the writing style is beautiful, and the author captured the emotion of her story beautifully.

Freudian Slip by Erica Orloff – The author took what could have been a very cheesy premise and instead wrote a very poignant book about second chances.  The best parts of this story are truly romantic and I loved it.

As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason – I normally am a good girl and stick to 2 runners-up, but 2009 was the best reading year I’ve had in a while and I couldn’t leave this one out.  I enjoyed the entire Gardella Vampire series, and this final installment of Victoria’s story was truly satisfying and made me adore the main characters even more than I already did.”

Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband also got two top nods.

Rike Horstmann:
Top Pick: Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas
Runners up: Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly and Hot Under Pressure by Kathleen O’Reilly

“My favorite romance this year was Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband. I loved the exotic settings and the unusual characters, and the luscious prose left me breathless several times. My runners-up are Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly and Hot Under Pressure by Kathleen O’Reilly. Amazingly enough, I loved them for the same reason: The main characters were people who somehow felt grounded, more real with their flaws and insecurities than most other romance characters, and this meant I could relate to them.”

Heather Brooks:
Top pick: Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas
Runners up: To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt, Don’t Tempt Me by Loretta Chase, Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning, and Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly

“This was a really hard decision to make, but I have to go with Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas as my favorite of the year.  Neither Leo or Byrony are perfect and their relationship was a struggle to read, but I don’t necessarily like perfect couples.  I loved that she was difficult and that he loved her anyway as well as the fact that they both made dreadful mistakes.  I also appreciated the fact that she was an older woman and that he was infatuated with her for forever.  It was one of the most moving books that I’ve read in years.

“I have several honorable mentions.  The first would have to be Don’t Tempt Me by Loretta Chase, simply because of the laugh out loud scenarios.  Others are Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning and Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly. And I can’t forget Hoyt’s To Beguile a Beast; I fell in love with the imperfect, gritty hero.

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie also drew two top votes.

Lee Brewer:
Top pick: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley

Runners up:  Carla Kelly’s Marrying the Captain and Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas.

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie was my favorite because it was so wonderful to read a historical with intelligent yet complicated characters.  Definitely a book not to rush through.”

Ellen Micheletti:
Top pick: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley

“My favorite was The Madness of Lord Ian McKenzie.  I’ve read several books where the hero had a mental illness or condition, and most of those led me to think that the heroine would eventually end up as the
hero’s nurse or his abused spouse.  Not this one.  Beth is strong and intelligent and she loves and understands Lord Ian.  I closed the book thinking they will be very happy together.”

And in what constitutes a landslide (at least among AAR staffers), Meredith Duran’s Bound by Your Touch is our big winner, with four votes.

Rachel Potter:
Top Pick: Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran

Jean Wan:
Top Pick: Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran
Runner up: Dangerous Lies by Anna Louise Lucia

“Only one stands out in my mind: Bound By Your Touch by Meredith Duran.  Neither plot manouevres nor secondary characters were extraneous, the character depth was astounding, and the writing just…sublime.  Frankly, it was pretty damn close to perfect.

“Runner-up & Buried Treasure: Dangerous Lies by Anna Louise Lucia.  I was extremely impressed with the author’s control of both character and plot, in a situation that could easily have gotten out of hand, and I am looking forward to this author’s future books.”

Blythe Barnhill:
Top Pick: Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran
Runners up: Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly and What Happens in London by Julia Quinn

“When I sat down to write this column, I was still making up my mind between Bound by Your Touch and Marrying the Captain. It’s the Duran by the nose, mostly because it felt innovative and refreshing to me. But only by a nose, because I thought Carla Kelly also hit it out of the park. And What Happens in London was delightful and funny.

Sandy Coleman:
Top pick: Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran
Runner up: Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas

“I had a good reading year.  It was the year I discovered Deanna Raybourn, who is turning into a favorite author.  Connie Brockway came back to historicals (yeah!) with a terrific book, Sherry Thomas continues to intrigue me, and Charlaine Harris had the best Sookie Stackhouse novel in years in Dead and Gone.  I also loved The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie, and I’m excited about where the author will go next.

Two books stood out to me this year.  Lisa Kleypas has been a favorite of mine for years now and I thought she hit it out of the park with Smooth Talking Stranger.  I loved the heroine, but, quite honestly, the hero was what kicked it over the top for me.  For an author known for creating memorable heroes, he’s one of her best.

“But I’ve got to go with Bound By Your Touch by Meredith Duran as my favorite of the year.  The story and the characters were perfectly done and I was in awe of her achievement, while I also reveled in the story.  A benediction that is on the way to getting tiresome is to compare an author to Judith Ivory.  Nobody is Judith Ivory but Judith Ivory, but as a standard of excellence I think she will do very well.  I thought that the hero evoked what we loved about Nardi from Bliss – only without the vomit.  Definitely my book of the year.”

Our annual poll has a shorter voting period this year, so we’ll soon know whether our staffers choices are echoed among our readership. There’s still time to vote…and if you’re a fast reader, maybe our suggestions will help you find a few to squeeze in at the eleventh hour.

- Blythe Barnhill

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7 Responses to Best of 2009, Reviewer’s Choice

  1. Kati says:

    So many of my favorite books listed here!

    I’m sorry to see no one mentioned Scandal by Carolyn Jewel, which I found to be a sublime reading experience.

    Butterfly Tattoo by Deidre Knight was easily the most moving contemporary novel I read this year.

    Archangel’s Kiss by Nalini Singh is another book that blew me away. I love how she is able to worldbuild while never losing site of the romance. And this world is so vastly different from the Psy/Changeling world.

  2. MarissaB says:

    I’m glad I voted already or I would have had a harder time of it.

    I enjoyed Bound By Your Touch when I read it, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the plot or the characters. Huh.

    “Different strokes . . . .”

  3. Lada says:

    So glad you continue to do this reading round-up! It helps me remember as well as gives me suggestions…or at least encourages me to grab that book I may have put off reading.

    I also always find it interesting to explore our differences. If the annual poll still included “Authors Others Love that You Don’t Get”, Meredith Duran may have been my choice. Appreciate her writing skills but don’t love her stories.

    Looking forward to the poll results now!! :)

  4. Ann Stephens says:

    I enjoyed the range of books preferred by AAR’s reviewers. Not all of their choices appealed to me, but my daughters and friends and I don’t agree on favorites either. That’s what makes our conversations about books so interesting!

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  6. Lusty Reader says:

    i too share many favorites with these “Reviewer’s Choice” picks, it feels…oddly validating…to see similar tastes out there to mine, such as Branded by Fire (#1 in the series is still my all time fave) and Not Quite a Husband. 2009 was a great year, but here’s to an even better 2010! *cheers*

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