The Elusive A+

One of my children asked me recently if I’d ever given a book I’d reviewed an A+. I said I hadn’t. He then asked if I thought I ever would. I said yes, that in fact, there was a book I’d reviewed this past year and had given an A- to that I now see as an A+ novel (Julie Anne Long’s What I Did for a Duke.) “So what’s an A+ book?” he asked. “Let me think about it,” I said.

Not only did I think about it, I did some research. First, I checked how many A+’s AAR has given over the years. (21, and none since 2007.)  I then asked my colleagues at AAR what they would consider an A+ book and if they’d ever read one. The responses were varied, yet many had similar qualities.

Sandy said, “An A+ book is a book that satisfies on every level.  It is, in fact, a perfect book. I’ve given just one A+ and that was for Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer, a book first published in 1932 that I loved as a teenager and still love today.  In my case, it was a book that stood the test of time. I wish now that I’d given an A+ to Untie My Heart by Judith Ivory.  I gave it the typical A- back then and I regret it now.”

Wendy L agreed with Sandy and added, “Yes, and it has to provoke an emotional response, either crying, laughter, or anger to make it an A+ for me.” She listed The Truelove Bride by Shana Abe, Games of Command by Linnea Sinclair, possibly Charming Grace by Deborah Smith, and oddly enough Dooly and the SnortSnoot by Jack Kent as books that would rate an A+ for her.

LinneGayl added, “… it would be a book that would stick with me over time. Scenes and characters would pop into my mind, sometimes years after the first reading, and it would be one I would want to reread again and again. They would also be books in which I would hope that the author would write subsequent books featuring the secondary characters, because they too, as well as the hero and heroine, were remarkable and unforgettable. Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve read a romance that would qualify for me, although I can think of a number that would definitely be A’s. I can think of two mysteries, Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (the first Flavia de Luce) by Alan Bradley that are definitely A+ for me.”

Vicky H said she’d never reviewed a romance that she’d give an A+ to with one exception. She says, “I do have one I would give an A+ if I were writing one today and that is the audio version of Outlander.  The narrator’s performance makes it over the top and an A+ in my mind.” LinnieGayl agreed that the audiobook versions of some romances deserve different grades than the written versions. She says, “I can think of several SEPs that would have been an A or A- were I reviewing the print version (Match Me If You Can comes to mind). However, if I were to have written a full review of the Anna Fields audio version, it would definitely be an A+. On the other hand, one of my all-time Nora Roberts’ favorites, Born in Fire, is definitely a solid A for me in print. But in audio, it would be in the B range.”

Jean couldn’t think of a recent romance she’d give an A+ to. She says, “An A+ is perfect in every way – that is not negotiable.  Plot, character, setting, pace, prose – all are original, heartfelt and moving, and there isn’t a single extraneous word.  Seriously, I have to not find anything wrong with it, or change a thing.  I have never given an A+ to a book written after 1980 (probably because my standards are so darn high), but The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, and Bound By Your Touch by Meredith Duran come the closest.” She added, “However, if we go back fifty years, then I’d name Georgette Heyer’s Frederica as a personal A+.  Everything in that book works for me – everything.”

Lynn S says, “Hmm…that’s tough.  I can think of several A’s for me, but an A+ is hard.  I haven’t done a reread in several years, but I do think Alinor by Roberta Gellis would probably still hold up for me as would Venetia by Georgette Heyer.”

Pat H also loves Heyer’s Frederica. She says for her, “An A+ would be a book that sucks me into the world and characters so tightly that the real world around me not only dims, but when I’m pulled back to it, I struggle to get back into the fictional world.  The main characters are people I know, understand, and love, people I personally would sacrifice for.  Not only am I intellectually engaged, I’m viscerally sharing the emotions of the main characters.  The A+ book is one I want to read over and over again because of the totality of the experience.  The A+ book to me is the epitome of the addiction of reading. Books written after 1970 that fall into this category for me are Maggie Osborne’s Silver Lining, Mary Balogh’s The Temporary Wife and Slightly Dangerous, Carla Kelly’s The Admiral’s Penniless Bride, Lisa Kleypas’ Suddenly You, Maureen McKade’s A Reason to Live, and Sarah Mayberry’s She’s Got It Bad.”

Blythe too is a fan of Outlander. She says, “For me A+ books would not only be perfect, but memorable and maybe even groundbreaking. They are the kind of books that are so absorbing you feel annoyed when your real life intrudes. I can think of several that are solid As for me, but the only two I’d really give an A+ grade to are Outlander (not precisely JUST a romance, but surely about as romantic as it gets) and Mary Jo Putney’s Shattered Rainbows.”

Maggie reserves her A+’s for the classics. She says, “My A+ would be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. For me it is a perfect read.  A second A+ would be Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.”

Rike has given a book an A+ here at AAR and, had she to do it again, might have given more. She says, “I’ve only given one A+ here at AAR, and that was for Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, which is YA fantasy with a very strong romance. I’ve given quite a few As, though, and when I consider the definition that the book has to stay with you, that you reread it again and again, and want to know about all the secondary characters, then Alinor by Roberta Gellis, In Pursuit of the Green Lion by Judith Merkle Riley, Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly and Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart also qualify.” She adds, “Among Georgette Heyer’s books, I agree with all who name Frederica. Pitch-perfect, every sentence of it.”

Heather R thinks the A+ book is hard to find. She says, “I think of an A+ book as being a sort of elusive dream. Each time I open a book I’m hoping that it will deliver that perfect blend of superb writing (plot, characterization, dialogue, etc) and strong emotions. I have to love the characters and want to spend time with them. And though it has a satisfactory conclusion, I should be left wanting more. I’m still searching for my A+ read, but to date the book that probably comes closest for me is Laura Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly.

Jane G also hasn’t found the perfect book yet. She says, “I don’t know if I’ve ever read an A+ book, but for me it would be one that I could read over and over and over again– a true DIK– and that I could recommend to almost anyone, unequivocally.  The closest thing would be Outlander.”

Leigh thinks that the way we see books changes over time. She says, “I don’t think I have either (read an A+ romance). And it is difficult for me to think of books that are still A books for me.  I fall in love with them upon the first reading, but after re-reading them so often they turn into comfort reads, which is not the same as an A book.   A books I tend to rave about and recommend to my friends.   And after re-reading them so many times they lose their intensity.” The only book she’s given an A to is Sharon Shinn’s Dark Moon Defender. Leigh loves that book because “the hero doesn’t really know what love is. He grew up without it, and he has never experienced it, but his gradual awakening to it, rather than a quick intense blinding revelation touches me so. Add into that his realization he has family, and I can’t help but be touched every time I read it.”

As for me, an A+ book is one I adored the first time I read it, have re-read it several times, and, each time, found further depth and power in its prose. Compared to my colleagues, I’m clearly easier to please–there are at least five books I’d give an A+ to. They are the aforementioned What I Did for a Duke by Julie Anne Long, My Lord and Spymaster by Joanna Bourne, Lord Perfect by Loretta Chase, The Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran, and Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale.

What about you? Are there romances you think merit an A+? If so, what are they?

– Dabney Grinnan

35 thoughts on “The Elusive A+

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  4. Excellent post – lots of potential A+ material still to be explored!!!
    My A+ reads:
    Shadow of the Moon – MM Kaye
    Outlander – Diana Gabaldon
    My Dearest Enemy – Connie Brockway
    Venetia – audio edition – Georgette Heyer
    The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman

  5. As others have alluded to, I have noticed that many of a reader’s absolute faves are books read when either young or as the first of a genre; a *first love* response. I didn’t read romance novels until well into my 50s, after my divorce, so came at them from a whole ‘nuther viewpoint.
    I missed the whole rape-as-love mindset of early Roberts et. al., or the ingenuousness of Heyer. An early read was Gaboldan’s The Outlander and I hated the pain and torture involved in that concept of ‘entertainment’.
    Many of the other early romances I read involved either the TSTL heroine or the I-cannot-help-myself trope recently found but not only in Meyer’s Twilight (anyone else out there ever lived with an abusive mate or parent, the ‘I know he’s going to kill me some day but I LUV/NEED HIM?’). Or SEP’s format of first-you-must suffer (and I really enjoy her humor once one is beyond the angst). Then I found Jennifer Crusie and I ‘got’ the allure of the HEA and romance novels.
    I think that any idea, be it a novel or philosophy or religion is enjoyed probably first through its novelty and then through thought and perhaps finally through affection, but it seems based on where one is as a human being at the moment.
    The books I’d rate as As are the ones that I can read wherever I am in life and garner enjoyment from them from that POV. Pretty much anything by Ms Crusie, Ms Chase’s earlier stuff, some of Ms Quick’s one-word titled manuscripts, and if anyone can suggest more of this, I’d be most appreciative.

  6. My A+ list would start with an oldie: Elswyth Thane’s Tryst. Published in the 30s, it has everything: smart heroine, kooky aunt, absentminded father/villain, and a ghost. Wonderful.

    The only other book on it would be Jane Eyre.

  7. Great post, Dabney! Loved to see the point of view of the different reviewers, and the preferences of other readers.
    My A+ list would be:
    Reforming Lord Ragsdale by Carla Kelly
    Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
    Frederica by Georgette Heyer
    Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale and
    Bliss by Judy Cuevas (Judith Ivory)

  8. I’ve read a lot of Carla Kelly’s this year and most of them were in the B+ to A but one is definitely an A++ for me and that’s MRS DREW PLAYS HER HAND, it’s like my perfect novel in tone, characterization, plot, etc., etc…. And also, Lavyrle Spencers MORNING GLORY…definitely!

  9. I have to add a series here I thought was an A+ :

    C L Wilson’s five book Lord of the Fading Lands. It had all the elements I want in a “best” book (or series in this case): marvelous dialogue and turn of phrase, characters I care about, great lead H/hs who grow and develop, believable romance, and a plot that is original and fresh.

  10. I get the feeling that it’s impossible for a book to get an A+ rating because you can only know if a book is really an A plus after time has passed.

    I think that should really be how a DIK is established, rather than by the grade it’s given. I have many DIKs that I wouldn’t consider A+ books. And vice versa.

    I never understand when people say their favorite book or movie is one that just came out, and similarly, I don’t see how a book can be a keeper until you’ve kept it for awhile.

  11. My favs old and new:
    LaVyrle Spencers – Hummingbird
    Adele Ashworth – My Darling Caroline
    Judith McNaught – Whitney, My Love
    Susan Elizabeth Phillips – Call Me Irresistible

  12. A+ is tough. For me, Robin McKinley’s Beauty is an A+. It is my ultimate comfort read. One of the4 few authors who I think produced an amazing number of A+ reads is Georgette Heyer. She was a master of dialogue and characterization. Beauvallet, Devil’s Cub, The Masqueraders and Friday’s Child are only a few of hers that I would rate A+

  13. These are my favorite kind of posts because:

    1. It’s always interesting to see which books move other readers.
    2. While I am nodding my head at some of the books mentioned, for others I am saying hmm… maybe I need to finally read that particular book that has been in my TBR pile.

    Of my own top 10 favorite books only 5 would make the A+ list:

    Laura Kinsale’s – Flowers from the Storm
    Diana Gabaldon’s -The Outlander
    LaVyrle Spencer’s – Morning Glory
    Pamela Morsi’s – Red’s Hot Honky-Tonk Bar
    Inez Kelley’s -Sweet as Sin

  14. I would agree with those who say that it’s quite difficult to give A+, unless one just decides that it must apply to the books that one re-reads repeatedly. The book must stand the test of time, and thus be A+ at different times of one’s life and during one’s different emotional environments, as enjoyment is so personal, and is very much affected by how much is going on in real life. Would an A+ be also a “comfort read”? For me, books that approach A+ include classics like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Emma. Outlander also would fit. In the true romance genre, many Heyers, including Frederica, Devil’s Cub, The Grand Sophy, fit the criteria, as do Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star, Barbara Samuel’s A Bed of Spices, Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady. I would also classify several paranormal/scifi/fantasy/action-filled books which are near A+ particularly Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, Bujold’s Cordelia’s Honor and A Civil Campaign, The Sharing Knife series, Sharon Shinn’s Archangel, Dark Moon Defender, Mystic and Rider. There are many other books which I think “this is an A read” when I finish reading them, but I never re-read again – so I haven’t really counted those.

    • msaggie: n the true romance genre, many Heyers, including Frederica, Devil’s Cub, The Grand Sophy, fit the criteria, as do Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star, Barbara Samuel’s A Bed of Spices, Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady.

      I have so enjoyed reading about other readers’ beloved books. After reading msaggie’s comment, I went to Amazon.com and looked up Bed of Spices and was thrilled to see it available for the Kindle for 2.99!

  15. I save the A+ for the rare books that affected me so strongly that I come back to them over and over:

    Devil in Winter, Lisa Kleypas
    Then Came You, Lisa Kleypas
    Dreaming of You, Lisa Kleypas
    Flowers from the Storm, Laura Kinsale
    Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
    The Spymaster’s Lady, Joanna Bourne
    Written on Your Skin, Meredith Duran
    Untie my Heart, Judith Ivory
    Kiss an Angel, Susan Elizabeth Phillips
    What I Did for a Duke, Julie Anne Long
    Rising Tides, Nora Roberts

  16. I give a lot of high scores after the first reading. If I still feel that way later (which is rare) then I’ll give it an A or A+. Outlander and My Sweet Folly took me away the second time as much as the first.

  17. All the comments made me realize how personal an experience reading a novel can be. There are several novels listed as A+ that I personally thought were wallbangers. Likewise, I’m sure that my personal ‘perfect’ books are somebody else’s F’s.

    As somebody who almost flunked college English for criticizing ‘classic masterpieces’, I don’t think I’m qualified to grade the perfect A+ book. For me, this book would be something that grabbed my imagination and induced me to re-read it immediately upon ending it. As far as I’m concerned, the grade would have more to do with my emotional reaction than with the book itself.

    My perfect books:

    A London Season by Joan Wolf
    Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton
    Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
    Pack Challenge by Shelley Laurenston
    Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie
    Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chace
    Agent of Change by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
    The Faery Godmother by Mercedes Lackey
    Changes by Jim Butcher
    Cordelia’s Honor by Lois MacMaster Bujold
    The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
    Long Shot by Dick Francis

    I’m all over the place, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some favorites, but I can also acknowledge that within this list are books that other readers wouldn’t consider A+’s.

  18. The only novel that I’ve ever given an A+ grading for was Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. The following sequels scored varying grades from A-’s to A’a but none of which could outscore the one that started it all.

    Pat mentioned Silver Lining by Maggie Osborne; this is one treasure of a book. The character development of the h/h was wonderfully crafted, particularly that of the heroine (whom I adored). If not for the cliche villainous character, this book mayhaps would have been a A+.

  19. I don’t record book grades, but all of these are books I’ve read many times:

    Romances:
    Ravished (r) Quick, Amanda
    Christmas Wishes (r) Metzger, Barbara
    The Secret (r) Garwood, Julie
    The Lion’s Lady (r) Garwood, Julie
    The Mad Miss Mathley (r) Martin, Michelle
    Autumn Glory (sr) Metzger, Barbara
    These Old Shades (r) Heyer, Georgette
    Dangerous (r) Quick, Amanda
    Devil’s Cub (r) Heyer, Georgette
    Scandal (r) Quick, Amanda
    Frederica (r) Heyer, Georgette
    The Duke’s Downfall (r) Lynson, Jane
    Pepper’s Way (r) Hooper, Kay

    SF:
    Agent of Change (s) Lee, Sharon & Miller, Steve
    Carpe Diem (s) Lee, Sharon & Miller, Steve
    Conflict of Honors (s) Lee, Sharon & Miller, Steve
    Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (s) Piper, H. Beam
    The I Inside (s) Foster, Alan Dean

    Would be A+ if typos fixed:
    A Rake’s Reform (r) Holbrook, Cindy
    Lord Sayer’s Ghost (r) Holbrook, Cindy
    The Actress & the Marquis (r) Holbrook, Cindy

  20. I really, really love a lot of romances but for me an A+ has to stand the test of time as well. That’s why its hard for me to give an A+ when reviewing. Sometimes on a re-read (or 3) I find little flaws I didn’t see the first time.

    maggie b.

  21. If A equals “best,” I can’t think of a sound reason to add a +, for how can something be better than best or a percentage go beyond 100? For romance fiction, where emotional reactions to a book play a great part, I can’t even think in terms of grades, for some books which have few of the qualities of excellent fiction, I nonetheless find to be very good or even excellent reads, a good example being Garwood’s medievals.

    • dick: If A equals “best,” I can’t think of a sound reason to add a +, for how can something be better than best or a percentage go beyond 100? For romance fiction, where emotional reactions to a book play a great part, I can’t even think in terms of grades, for some books which have few of the qualities of excellent fiction, I nonetheless find to be very good or even excellent reads, a good example being Garwood’s medievals.

      Thanks, dick, for posting. I was going to do so earlier, but I thought my thinking may be construed as archaic or silly. But it’s exactly the same as yours in this regard. Reading and reviewing books is such a personal endeavor no matter how public it is. It’s an opinion, regardless of the measurements used. Now maybe a grade could be given for the editing—using correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc; but the story line itself and how it’s told is a personal judgement, IMO.

      As to A+, I also feel similarly. A is the best, F is failing. Giving an A+ seems over the top (and maybe some situations are just that, but then what’s better than an A+ when you find a book even better than the A+ one?). I guess you could go on forever. When a teacher gives an F, they don’t give an F-. Failing is failing—how can you fail more?

      To me, just describing how and why you enjoyed a book tells others a lot more than an actual grade, especially if they don’t know my tastes in books—and even if they do. I see some books given an A+ by posters above that never made it to the third chapter by me. So how can a person figure it out?

  22. I agree with LibrarianLizy’s criteria. If a book keeps popping up in my head for positive reasons, the odds are it’s an A+:

    Carla Kelly’s Beau Crusoe, Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband, Meredith Duran’s The Duke of Shadows and Bound by Your Touch, Julie Anne Long’s Like No Other Lover, Judith Ivory’s Dance and Untie My Heart, Loretta Chase’s Captives of the Night, Patricia Gaffney’s Crooked Hearts – I’ll stop now.

  23. I have so many books that I read and loved over the years, but as time passes I remember most fondly but really don’t have a desire to re-read them.

    My taste changes with time, and what I loved then, I don’t love now especially some of the 80′s and 90′s books. Not that they weren’t great for their time period.

  24. Jo-Ann W,

    I thoroughly enjoy To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. I usually re-read it every two to three years.

    I also read the Bronze Horseman, and really enjoyed it at the time. But it has too much angst for me to want to re-read it.

  25. For me, an A+ book is one that I think about at random moments and go back and reread countless times. Lord of Scoundrels, Devil’s Bride (Stephanie Laurens), and Outlander fit that requirement. There are lots of Nora Roberts I own and reread, but I’m not 100% sure I would call any of them an A+.

    I’ve been grading romances for my personal use for closing in on two years, and I’ve yet to give an A+.

    As far as non-romance goes, Harry Potter gets an A+ from me, as does Mere Christianity and The Alchemist.

  26. I absolutely agree with Blythe about “Outlander” and “Shattered Rainbows”, two books that I would say fit the definition of a DIK to a T! I would also add “Checkmate”, the final book in the Lymond Chronicles. All the books in that series are wonderful, but “Checkmate” really tied up the loose ends of the story with a (mainly!) HEA! And finally, someone mentioned “Pride and Prejudice”–the true ancestor of the romance novel. Certainly that book definitely merits an A+!

  27. I’ll only list 5, though I have a few more:

    Outlander -Diana Gabaldon
    The Bronze Horseman -Paullina Simons
    The Shadow and the Star -Laura Kinsale
    The Rainbow Season -Lisa Gregory
    Welcome to Temptation -Jennifer Crusie

    Okay, one more non-romance: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. And I have to also say that I would never have read this book or The Bronze Horseman if it weren’t for AAR. So THANK YOU!!!

  28. For me–Red Adam’s Lady by Grace Ingram. I used to have this book memorized. I haven’t reread it for a long time because it is falling apart, literally! It’s held together with a rubber band.

  29. So happy to see someone else loves “My Lord And Spymaster” by Joanna Bourne- it’s an A+ for me too.

    Over The Edge- Suzanne Brockmann I would give an A+ to. I think it’s the best book she’s ever written. It’s tightly plotted and every part of it works.

    Carla Kelly- There are a handful of her books I would give an A+ to including Marrying The Captain, With This Ring and The Ladyship’s Companion.

    The Oracle Glass- Judith Merkle Riley

    Gaudy Night- Dorothy L. Sayers

    Outlander- Diana Gabaldon

    Lisa Kleypas and Nora Roberts have a few I’d have to choose between.

  30. Carla Kelly’s Marrying the Captain
    Mary Balogh’s Simply Love and Simply Perfect – audio AND print
    Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels and entire Carsington series.
    Jennifer Ashley’s The Maddness of Lord Ian MacKenzie
    Amy Lane’s Clear Water and Living Promises (m/m)
    Judith Ivory’s The Proposition
    Shelly Laurentson’s The Mane Squeeze and Beast Behaving Badly

    Can’t think of any regular contemporary romance that have hit A+ for me.

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