AAR Staff Top Ten Favorites: Maggie’s Picks

pandp Before I begin, I must issue a disclaimer. I don’t have ten favorite books. I have hundreds of them. I imagine most of us here at AAR do. When the idea for the Top Ten Tuesday came up I was panicked wondering how I would narrow my list down to just ten. How could I do that? The simple answer is I can’t. I didn’t. The following list will cover one of my favorites from ten of my favorite romance subgenres. Each book is actually representing many peers. And that is an amazing thing. In looking over a few decades of reading romance novels I’ve fallen in love with the genre all over again. There have been so many fantastic reads over the years, so many books that captured the essence of just what I want from a romance novel.

Just what is that you might ask? The answer is both simple and complex. I want a lovely love story. Easy enough, right? Wrong. So many authors still confuse lust with love, giving us two bickering people who have hot sex while barely being able to be in the same room together without making us want to smack them both. Other authors confuse excitement with love, delivering fascinating tales which happen to include people falling in love but not really focusing their story on that magical fact. Yet other authors provide us with caricatures falling in love; their books could contain a disclaimer about no humans being involved since I certainly don’t recognize any humans I have ever met in their characters.

So what happens when authors do get it right? We have two people who genuinely get to know each other. We have the surface action of physical attraction and the emotional aspect of two people being enchanted by each other. We have real lives going on while the romance takes place. We meet friends and family who aren’t just set ups for the next book but who provide us with insight into our primary couple. And we have focus – an intense look into watching the characters fall for each other. That to me makes for a luscious love story.

I do have a caveat to my list. Many of the novels that made up my reading journey and that have made me such an avid romance reader didn’t make the list. Of course I adore Pride and Prejudiceand Sense and Sensibility by the fabulous Jane Austen, and of course they were an important step in my reading journey. Mary Stewart is the grandmother of the Romantic Suspense novel with her amazing stories such as Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, and Touch Not the Catand her books will always rank among my favorites. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte brought us the modern gothic, a genre which I love but didn’t include since it is pretty sparse right now. These books are pillars of romance favorite lists and I decided that any decent desert island would already have them in stock.

Another difficult omission was my very first series romance. novel. There is no doubt that Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe, a Harlequin Presents from the late 1970s, had a huge impact on me. The story of Lian, an English girl who travels to Argentina in the hopes of becoming a dancer and Ricardo, a man who stands to inherit a large ranch if he can only find a bride instantly, had me glomming Harlequins during my middle school years. However, as nostalgic as I feel towards Lord of La Pampa it simply isn’t as good as the novels I’ve listed below. It might be an emotional favorite but is it a book I would whip out as an example of how great romance can be? No. So without further ado here is my list:

The Historicals

troubadoursromance Medieval Period: The Troubadour’s Romance by Robyn Carr Nothing says medieval like an Alpha Male. One of the few I’ve read who was believable for his time period and yet not an alpha a$$ is Sir Royce Leighton. Royce’s past had him less than delighted by the idea of marriage but the lovely Felise Scelfton proves to him that love can blossom in even the most dismal of landscapes. What I cherish most about this novel is the genuine love story between Felise and Royce, two people who see each other’s hearts and appreciate what lies beneath the surface. The author’s lovely writing and detailed knowledge of history make it a pure pleasure to read.

summertoremember European (Regency Era): A Summer to Remember by Mary Balogh I’ve loved my share of Regency era romances but Mary Balogh is the author that has DIK’d the most for me in that subgenre. I chose A Summer to Remember to represent them because Kit and Lauren’s story is for me the most romantic of them all. He is a complete rakehell and womanizer. She is a prim and proper beauty who was left at the altar. A wager with his friends – and a possible unwanted alliance at home – have him seeking her hand in marriage. The result is one unforgettable summer and the love of a lifetime. And it really is just that – love. Watching Kit and Lauren discover each other as people and realize just how perfectly suited they are to be together was absolutely beautiful.

runabout American History: Runabout by Pamela Morsi This book is set at the turn of the 20th Century and captures beautifully the ideal of “Americana”. Tulsa May Bruder is another jilted at the altar (or at least during the engagement party) heroine. Handsome, successful Luther Briggs is the last man anyone would expect to court her. After all, the two have been best friends for years. Yet Luther’s plan to make everyone forget about Tulsy’s failed engagement works far better than either of them would have ever expected. This lovely story captures everything about what it means to genuinely fall in love. There is a scene at the beginning that says it all: “He looked down at her again. Seeing the golden freckled face, the intelligent brown eyes, and the wide, smiling mouth with its endearing gap toothed grin, he smiled. “I don’t have to take your side, Tulsy” he said. “But I always will.” The moment was sweet and fresh and lightened Tulsa May’s heart as Latin poems and sweet summer music never could.” It touched my heart, too.

The Contemporaries:

friscoskid Military Romance: Frisco’s Kid by Suzanne Brockmann Ms. Brockmann’s main competition was from herself. Did I love Over the Edge most? Or did I want to go with the one that sent me on my Brockmann glom – The Unsung Hero? The fact is that despite her many writing flaws (her deep POV translates as “too lazy to stay consistent” for me) she is still the one person who delivers the military hero fantasy the best. In this novel we get Lt. Alan Francisco who feels like he has lost it all when a leg injury means he can no longer be an active duty SEAL. Meeting Mia Summerton and caring for his five year old niece show him just how much life still has to offer. What I love about this book is the tale of second chances and the hope that comes with them. The characters embody the ideal that when life gives you lemons you should make lemonade. I also loved how Frisco, used to being admired for his strength, learns that it is tenderness and vulnerability that are the ingredients for a lasting love. The pink couch was a magic moment for me, too. And the shopping bag scene.

openseason Romantic Suspense: Open Season by Linda Howard I love this genre and there are dozens of great writers in it. Some of Tami Hoag’s early works, such as Ashes to Ashesreally gave my pick a run for its money. Sandra Brown had several that I considered. Some of Tess Geritsen’s early works were also in the running. But Ms. Howard’s toughest competition came from herself. In the end, Open Season, the story of Jack, a tough as nails cop turned small town sheriff and Daisy the librarian won because I love it. It has a strong romance and a strong mystery. It mixes dark with light, funny with sad and showcases all the tools Linda Howard has in her considerable arsenal of talent. This is what it means to write both a love story and a mystery and blend them together in such a fashion that neither outweighs the other. The condom scene in the middle of the street is what cinched my choice. A priceless moment.

nobodysbabybutmine Rom Com: Nobody’s Baby but Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips The romantic comedy often seems to work better in movies than in print. Phillips is one of the rare authors that takes that rule and blows it out of the water. She is also another author whose strongest competition came from herself. I choose the story of Jane, a bright woman with a really dumb plan for getting pregnant and Cal, a football player who needs to learn to act his age, because it has heart, humor and some truly hilarious moments. My favorite of those comes when Cal, finding his favorite breakfast cereal tampered with, resorts to calling Jane a “cereal killer.” Priceless.

womansplace Inspirational Romance: A Woman’s Place by Lynn Austin What I love about this book is the way it turns conventional thinking on its head. Many people would expect inspirational romances to be the bastion of conservative values. And some are. But most leave the preaching for Sunday morning and take a hard look at what women need and want, as well as what makes a good love story. In this beautiful novel we meet Virginia, a housewife who wants to do her share for the war – and desperately needs to revitalize her marriage. Helen may have wealth but her heart has a hole that money has never filled. Gentle Jean thinks her man is Prince Charming – until she meets someone who makes her rethink just what that is. And then Rosa is a newlywed taken from her familiar environment, living with people she doesn’t know and longing for the husband who is so far away. All of them learn that love is never what you expect it to be as they spend time working in a factory during the early violent years of WWII.

girlwhochasedthemonn Favorite Contemporary: The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen It was nearly impossible to pick a book for this category from the hundreds of choices I had. I went with Ms. Allen’s book because it is beautifully written, charming, sweet, inspiring – she is one of the best authors writing right now. Among her many excellent novels this is my favorite because it tells the sweetest and most complex love story. Julia Winterson is a bad girl made good, a troubled teen who now owns a successful business. Sawyer Alexander is and always has been a golden boy, perfect in looks, personality, wealth and character. The two share a secret – and a love – that is filled with magic. The author weaves this book with love on every page – romantic love, familial love and love for those we don’t know but long for anyway.

wintersea Favorite Paranormal: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley No favorites list would be complete for me without Susanna Kearsley. One of the things I love about her makes her perfect for this sub-genre – the way she has of bringing the slightly magical into the realm of the everyday. Carrie McClelland is a writer of historical novels, turning actual events into breathtaking fictionalized tales. But things take a turn for the deliciously macabre when Carrie begins to dream her most recent novel – and then finds out that those dreams contain far more fact than fiction. And the most disturbing bit of all is that the man of her dreams is now a very real person in her life, Graham Keith. Had she and Graham actually lived once before, loved before? And how did that story end? This tale has a haunting, lyrical ambience which sucks you in and doesn’t let you go till the very last page.

twilight Favorite YA Paranormal: Twilight by Stephanie Meyer YA is an exploding market right now and contains many excellent novels. And yes, some of them are better written than Twilight, with more depth to their characters and plot. But none of them concentrate on the relationship the way Twilight does. When Edward Cullen meets Bella Swan he could just eat her up. Literally. Edward is a vampire and Bella’s blood sings a particularly potent call to him. He resists and the two begin a love story that will change the destiny of a town and last forever.

So there they are. Ten of my favorite books from some of my favorite sub-genres. My first and most important question is – would the first romance you ever read make your favorites list? Why or why not? Which sub-genres did I miss which you would have included? Do you agree or disagree with my description of a DIK? Which of the books on my list have you read? Based on the list, what would you recommend I read?

– Maggie Boyd

24 thoughts on “AAR Staff Top Ten Favorites: Maggie’s Picks

  1. Maggie, I really love how you analyzed the factors that make your DIK read. You put into words something I have struggled to describe over the years. I think I now understand why my keeper shelf is populated with what I have called “character driven” romances. Yes, I enjoy the page turning qualities of an exciting plot and I will sigh (or something else) with pleasure over a hot love scene but I won’t want to read these books over and over again as I will want to revisit (sometimes many times over) beloved characters falling in love.

    I’ve read three of your picks: the Balogh, Howard and Kearsley – you make me want to check out some of the others.

  2. I am so excited to get to see my fellow AAR staffers picks!! It’s kind of like Christmas morning and opening presents – that thrill to see what you will get. Of this list, I’ve read four of the titles. And while I wouldn’t list “Frisco’s Kid” as my favorite Brockmann (but I would list Brockmann as a favorite author of mine), all four would be in my top picks as well. Which means that now I have to check out the other six titles because they all look very intriguing. Thanks for sharing, Maggie. I’m discovering that this is a really hard exercise – to narrow down so many loves to just ten picks.

  3. Oh…and to answer your question. I would say the first romance I read even though it technically isn’t a romance was “These Happy Golden Years” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and it would certainly be at the top of my list. I started reading romances back in the beginning, in the days of the bodice rippers. The only one that has stuck with me is “Whitney, My Love” by Judith McNaught. I wouldn’t put it at the top of my list, but it is on my keeper shelf. It hasn’t stood the test of time the way I would have liked.

    • I loved Whitney, My Love at one point too. I am afraid to pick it back up because I am fairly certain I will be disappointed in it.

  4. I think the first romance I red was Nicola and the Viscount (it’s YA romance). I read it nine years ago when I was 14 and I loved (and read) to pieces. In spite of that I wouldn’t put it on my top ten since I’ve read better and more romantic books since then. I could probably do a top ten romance authors, but never top ten books (a top 50 maybe).

    • YA was one of my hardest picks. I do love Mckinley’s work and Rose Daughter was a possibility I considered. I also really considered Impossible by Nancy Werlin. Alex Flinn’s Beastly a reimaging of Beauty and the Beast and Cloaked a re-do of the twelve dancing princesses, as well as A Kiss in Timer(Sleeping Beauty) were all contenders. I could easily list 50 favorite YA novels, probably more. I chose Twilight not because it is the best YA but for intensity of concentration on the romance. But I agree wholeheartedly that McKinley is an awesome writer.

  5. The Girl Who Chased the Moon is also my favorite by Sarah Addison Allen. I love Julia and her touching story. Sarah Addison Allen is such an expert at writing whimsical romances with imaginative storylines, and intriguing characters.

  6. A Summer to Remember and Nobody’s Baby But Mine are two of the first romances I read when discovering the genre. Wish daily for books that good.

    Good list, but Twilight?!?!

  7. Several years ago when I jumped into reading romance and devoured all my library offered, I found Dear Author and printed out the Top 100 list. That gave me lots of new authors (to me) and directions to experience. The If You Like… columns were also a treasure trove of suggestions. I so look forward to these Tuesday columns and ultimately the new list.

    Suzanne Brockmann was such an amazing surprise- I avoided military romance, seemed just too “formula” for me- man was I wrong! Currently this is the only series that I own all of the books. So glad to see her mentioned in Maggie’s and Jenna’s picks.

    • I realize rereading my comment that I left out that ” I found DA AND AAR then printed out the top 100.” Just want to say I look up reviews on AAR almost every day, especially if the author is new to me.

  8. I first discovered romance in The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, such a fabulous way to start and in my teens discovered Dorothy Dunnett’s fascinating hero and heroine Francis Crawford of Lymond and Philippa, two really complex characters. I have always loved Georgette Heyer, especially Venetia (and especially read by the gorgeous Richard Armitage) and am now a huge fan of Mary Balogh, especially Slightly Dangerous. I also love Jo Beverley, especially Devilish and anything by the fabulous Anne Stuart, whether modern or historical. Liz Carlyle, Grace Burrowes, Tracy Grant and Elizabeth Hoyt complete my 10 historicals.
    For modern, I would add Linda Howard, Sandra Brown, Julie James and SEP, with Laura Griffin becoming a firm favourite.
    Like Maggie, I like Suzanne Brockman and also Iris Johansen and Elizabeth Lowell and there are so many more writers I could mention.

  9. Maggie,

    You have listed some great authors. I might not have picked the same books as an exmple- Natural Born Charmer or It Had to Be You are my favorites by SEP,, still if I made up a list today of favorite authors I would have to include with Robyn Carr, SEP, Pamela Morsi Susanna Kearsley, and Sarah Addison Allen.

  10. Well, my reading choices before were pretty bad – I’ve only recently started reading books that have any character and unfortunately the only authors I’ve read that we share in common are Sarah Addison Allen, Linda Howard and Stephanie Meyer. I love Sarah Addison Allen and Linda Howard, though for romance I think Linda was at the top of her game with Mckenzie’s Mountain. For me it’s a hard choice between Linda Howard and Tess Gerritsen. As far as Stephanie Meyer and Twilight – while I agree it’s not the best YA out there, I do think you hit the nail on the head with your assessment of the relationship aspect between Edward and Bella. I think it’s a shame she choose to go the way of the adding a stalkerish aspect to her series by having “Jacob” be such an obsessed person. I think it’s the level of “bad teenage angst” that drives most relatively normal adults batty. Great post!

  11. All excellent selections. I was particularly surprised to see a non-Virgin River book by Robyn Carr.

  12. I think Whitney My Love was my first romance as well. I haven’t read any of these so I think I’ll start with Summer to Remember. I love the Tuesday lists!

  13. I, too, love the Tuesday lists. Yours were interesting selections and we like some of the same authors. I would recommend Beatriz Williams’ Overseas or Lynn Kurland’s Stardust of Yesterday in the favorite paranormal category and Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angel series for Historical. I, also, second the comment related to the Scarlet Pimpernel leading me along the romantic road while in High School.

    • I did like William’s Overseas but I love Susanna kearsely. It was tough to pick from among her books. I’ll be interested to see how the new William’s (A Hundred Summers) stacks up to Overseas

      • Thanks for the Kearsley recommendation. I have a couple of her books in my TBR file. Regarding Overseas, I listened to the Audible version of the book and really enjoyed it. I have found that I sometimes fall in love with audio versions of books that I only liked in print. The narrator often brings a new flavor to the printed word.

  14. I love theTuesday lists very much. I read and loved the Balogh book and Frisco. Will have ” The Girl Who Chased the Moon” in german in August. I’m looking forward to it.

  15. Great post, Maggie! Picking favourites is such a difficult thing to do, and you found an excellent way to do the narrowing down :)

    I’ve already got the Robyn Carr and Susanna Kearsley on my TBR pile and on the strength of your recommendations, might have to bump them a bit higher.

    • Jenna did the hard work by going first! It’s been a few years since I read the Carr but I’ve owned it for twenty years now (still have the original paperback version) so it is a DIK for me. Not sure how it stacks up against recent medievals as I no longer read therm :-) I do however whole heartedly stand behind my Kearsley recommend. All her books are fabulous.

  16. Just have to thank you for the Open Season recommendation . . . you have several on your list that I also love (SEP, Balogh, Meyer) and I about fell off the couch at both the ice cream/mauve/puce and the condom scenes. I love funny romances and this one was a winner.

    Also, just picked up the Robyn Carr too. Had no idea she’d written a good medieval . . . so high expectations ;-)

    Thanks!

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