AAR Staff Top Ten Favorites – Caz’s Picks

splendiddefiance Normally, the question “what’s your favourite book/piece of music/film?” is one that’s likely to turn me into a jibbering idiot and turn my mind completely blank. I mean really – just one favourite? And in any case, it usually depends on my mood on any one day. One day might demand Mozart and the next, Mahler. Or I’ll be in the mood for Die Hard one evening and Wall-E the evening after. By that token, if my choices tend to be mood dependent, how was I going to produce a list of titles that wasn’t going to change from day-to-day? So I decided the first thing I needed to do was to decide on the benchmark qualities I look for in a book that would qualify it for a place in my Top Ten.

Anyone that knows me knows I’m a bit of a stickler for good spelling and grammar, and for writing that displays at least a basic grasp of good sentence construction and logic. But those things should be a given in any good book, so they should be taken as read. So, was my criteria to be based on good writing or an unusual storyline; good characterisation or a talent for sparkling dialogue?

Eventually, I realised I was leaning more and more towards one particular thing – how did the book make me feel? I read romance novels because I enjoy becoming invested in the characters and their stories, so my list is based very much on my emotional response to each title. Did it make me laugh and/or cry? Was it one of those books that, as I finished the final page, made me feel emotionally drained (in a good way)? Did I finish it on a high? Was it the sort of book that makes it hard to get into another one for a day or so?

I – on reflection, stupidly – had the idea that choosing a Top Ten might be a simpler matter for me than for some of my fellow reviewers, principally because I’m not as widely read across the different sub-genres. I got hooked on Historical Fiction at the age of eleven or twelve and that love of times past has never left me, so about 99.99% of what I read in the genre is Historical Romance. Oh, I’ve dabbled with the odd Contemporary, but I still prefer the extra level of escapism, if you will, allowed by chronological distance; from the danger of the political intrigue of the 16th Century to the strict adherence to convention of the 19th – and thinking of the men in their tight breeches doesn’t hurt either!

Some of my colleagues have also said that there are one or two titles that haven’t made their lists because they should be a “given” – be it Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. And that reminded me of the way Desert Island Discs works. For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, it’s a long running weekly radio programme in which a different celebrity is interviewed and asked to pick the eight pieces of music they’d like to have with them in the event they become stranded on – yep, that’s it – a desert island. As well as their eight choices, they’re allowed one luxury, a copy of the Bible (or holy book of choice) and the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Applying a similar set of rules to my Top Ten means that instead of the Shakespeare, I’d like Lord of Scoundrels and Flowers from the Storm. No romance library is complete without either, IMO. But as it’s unlikely I’d be allowed to take David Tennant with me, I’d have to forego the luxury ;-)

Of course, selecting my Top Ten Historical Romances hasn’t turned out to be especially easy and I’ll probably be changing my mind right up until the last minute. But here – in no particular order – is a list of those books that I really couldn’t do without.

1. A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley – You know how, sometimes, you see or read or listen to something that really makes an impression on you? So much so that it stays with you long after you first encountered it? Back in 1985/6, I picked up a book – completely randomly, and because I thought it sounded interesting – by a British author called Stella Riley. It was a mixture of Historical Romance and Historical Fiction, and was set during the English Civil war. Ms Riley wrote a handful of books in the 80s and 90s, and I could quite easily have put all of them on this list. A Splendid Defiance is the first book of hers I read, and it’s one of those stories that has never left me. Set during the latter part of the English Civil War, it tells the true story of the siege of Banbury and the fictional story of a romance between people on opposite sides of the divide – Justin Ambrose, the acerbic Captain in the Royalist army and Abigail Radford, the sister of a local die-hard Puritan with whom he falls in love. It’s impeccably researched, dramatic, funny and tender; I fell head-over-heels in love with the hero and have stayed there ever since.

venetia 2. Venetia by Georgette Heyer – It would have been easy to find at least half-a-dozen Heyer titles to grace my list, but Venetia has always been my favourite. It’s a wonderfully “autumnal” story that never fails to enchant me and the characterisation of Damerel in particular is superb. So many heroes in today’s novels are described as “rakes” and “wicked” without really being so, but Damerel trulydoes deserve his reputation and there’s a real sense about him that he’s given up and feels he’s unworthy of redemption. There’s no question that this is his last chance at turning his life around, and Heyer’s wonderful writing allows the reader to see in him what Venetia sees – a kind and charming man whose youthful indiscretions haunt him, and whose lack of self-esteem has led him to live the life he feels is all he deserves. While Venetia is lovely on the inside as well as the outside, she feels she’s on the shelf, so in a sense Damerel is her ‘last chance’, too and I utterly adore the way these two people give each other so much without expecting anything in return. Venetia has no illusions and loves Damerel in spite of his faults. She gives him back his self-respect with her no-nonsense approach and in return, he gives her a shoulder to cry on and the love and support she’s been without for so long and probably thought she no longer needed.

therake 3. The Rake by Mary Jo Putney – Like Damerel, Reggie Davenport thoroughly deserves his wicked reputation. I think that Putney’s portrait of a man whose lifestyle is literally killing him is brilliantly observed and one that is still quite unique in the genre. Reggie could have been a difficult character to like, but Putney shows us so many different facets of his character – good and bad – that he engaged me almost immediately. He’s got a hell of a temper, and his lapses are truly heart-breaking, yet watching him struggle to turn his life around is truly uplifting. The romance between Reggie and Alys is beautifully done, and grows out of friendship and mutual respect, rather than the “insta-lust” that seems to occur in so many romances these days.

devilinwinter 4. The Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas – Sebastian St. Vincent is yet another bad boy – although in his case, his wicked reputation is founded principally on his womanising rather than a penchant for any other vices. I like the way that Kleypas merely hints at the reasons which have caused him to disclaim any finer feelings and regard himself as severely beyond the pale. She doesn’t feel the need to hit us over the head with the fact of his family tragedy or his loneliness, just provides the odd hint and lets the reader work it out. But the way he takes care of Evie so tenderly right from the start shows immediately that he is nowhere as black as he would have society think; and it’s that quality in him for care-giving that is one of his most attractive traits. I’m a total sucker for a character who is hiding their true nature behind some sort of defensive charade, and Sebastian fits that bill 110%! His relationship with Evie is absolutely beautiful, and while the romance is the focus of the story, there’s also the parallel one about a man finally finding a purpose and regaining his self-respect. This is one of those books where, although my head tells me it’s not perfect, my heart tells my head to shut up because Sebastian and Evie are so bloody adorable together; and because the way Kleypas redeems the self-centred, promiscuous, amoral viscount of It Happened one Autumn is masterful. If I had to name the book I’d re-read most in the last few months, this would probably be it.

ladyawakened 5. A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant – Immediately I finished it, my reaction to this book was “wow!” Not just because the writing was of such high quality and intelligence, but because the premise was quite unusual. There have been a few stories published recently about a man in need of an heir who pays a younger man to impregnate his wife, but ALA turns the premise around and instead gives us a respectable, newly widowed lady who takes a huge risk by approaching her new neighbour with an unconventional proposal. She will pay him for having sex with her in the hope of conceiving a child that she can then present as her dead husband’s heir. The thing is, that she does not just want security for herself. She wants to be able to continue to care for her tenants and to carry out her plans for opening a school for the local children, all things she knows that her brother in law will not care about. The sex scenes were initially awkward and about as un-erotic as anything I’ve ever read; and I liked the later use of them as a kind of indicator of the state of Theo and Martha’s relationship. As their friendship and mutual understanding grew, the sex got better. Theo began to understand and then to enjoy his position as a landowner and started to take his responsibilities seriously, and Martha began to see that there was more to life than duty.

boundbyyourtouch 6.Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran – This was another of those books that had the “wow!” factor for me. The writing was amazing and even more importantly the characterisation was stunning. It’s been a while since I read it last, but I still remember being bowled over with the depth and intensity with which Ms Duran imbued Sanburne – I could feel his self-hatred and despair and at the same time adore his wit, charm and fierce intellligence. Lydia took a while to grow on me, I admit, but her prickliness and ability to stand toe-to-toe with James showed so clearly that she’s his perfect match that they quickly became one of my favourite couples in the genre. This one is long overdue for a re-read.

christmasspirit 7. The Christmas Spirit by Elizabeth Fairchild – I don’t think I’ve ever had such an emotional reaction to a novel as I did to this one. The Christmas Spirit is a beautifully written, heart-breaking but uplifting story, that, while definitely romantic isn’t a traditional romance in the boy-meets-girl; boy-and-girl-live happily ever after mould. A dying man in his thirties encounters a beautiful and mysterious young woman at Christmas in a story about love and forgiveness that is atmospheric and gloriously romantic. The language is lyrical and sensual – the sexual tension leaps off the page (although there are no explicit sex scenes) and I don’t mind admitting that it moved me to tears on more than one occasion.

quickenberrytree 8. The Quickenberry Tree by Annette Motley – I’m afraid this title has been out of print for some time, but used copies seem to be reasonably easy to come by (in the UK at least). This is by another favourite author from the 1980s who seems to have disappeared and who I’d love to see her books made available electronically. The Quickenberry Tree is a ‘family saga’ set in the seventeenth century, again around the time of the English Civil War, and in it, we follow the lives and loves of the Heron family over the course of several years. The heroine – Lucy – is little more than a girl at the start of the novel, but attracts the attention of the hero, Will Staunton, who is several years older and a family friend. He’s got a bit of a reputation with the ladies, but is content to wait for Lucy to grow up a bit and fulfil the promise he can see in her before making any moves ;-) Theirs is the central romance of the story and a stormy one it proves to be as both Will and Lucy are such strong characters. It’s a long book (around 700 pages in paperback) but is very well-researched, with plenty of memorable characters and is superbly well-written across a broad canvas.

forloveofasoldier 9. For the Love of a Soldier by Victoria Morgan – This recent début had me riveted pretty much from start to finish. And that’s saying something considering it – albeit briefly – contains one of my least favourite tropes. The characterisation was excellent and even though the story touched on some very difficult subjects – the hero had returned from the Crimea having lived through some utterly horrific experiences, for example – the book contains some of the best, wittiest dialogue I’ve read in quite some time. The historical detail is very well-researched and skilfully incorporated into the storyline, and the sexual tension between the hero and heroine just leaps off the page.

bridegroomworeplaid 10. The Bridegroom Wore Plaid by Grace Burrowes – I couldn’t make a list of my top ten romances without including something by Grace Burrowes; but the problem was which book to choose, because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything of hers I’ve read so far. She has an incredible way with writing real and deep emotion and while I can appreciate that the high angst-quotient in many of her books might not be for everyone, I don’t object to having my heart ripped out and stomped on once or twice provided I know there’s an HEA around the corner! I chose Bridegroom principally because I remember my reaction to it so vividly. The story of the impoverished Scottish Earl who is so desperate to provide for his family and the dependents who inhabit his estate that he would consign himself to a life of misery with a woman who can never understand him got me “right there”. The romance which develops between Ian MacGregor and Augusta Merrick is beautifully written and heartbreaking as they each realise they have found their soulmate but are unable to be together because she’s even poorer than he is.

– Caz Owens

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26 Responses to “AAR Staff Top Ten Favorites – Caz’s Picks”

  1. Joane says:

    What a great group of novels. The ones that I have already read are some of my favourites. And the others sound very interesting. I think I will try them in the future.

    • Caz says:

      Thank you :) I knew some of the titles would be favourites already, but I hope there are some here for people to discover.

  2. Eggletina says:

    I really like Stella Riley’s books (including Splendid Defiance). In fact, your post reminded me to check for Black Madonna which is finally out as an ebook. I also often like family sagas, so I’ve added The Quickenberry Tree to my wish list.

    • Caz says:

      Yep, Madonna came out last Friday and it’s terrific :) I was only ever able to get hold of two of her books back in the 80s, but they both stuck with me over the years to the extent I would check Amazon occasionally to see if there were any reprints or affordable copies. And then, one day – Voila! There was The Marigold Chain for Kindle and a note from the author saying she was self-pubbing her backlist.

      I would really like the same happy accident to happen with Quickenberry! My old p/bk is falling to bits!

  3. maggie b. says:

    I just bought Christmas Spirit by Elisabeth Fairchild for Kindle. I’ve got a weakness for Regency Christmas stories :-) Thanks for recommending this one.

    • Caz says:

      It was pointed out to me by a friend on Goodreads and I was completely bowled over. It’s weird, I know, to be recommending Christmas stories in June, but with the way time flies…

      I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  4. Deann says:

    Thank you for giving me two new books and authors to read. I’ve put The Christmas Spirit by Elizabeth Fairchild and A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley on my list. Both books are available as e-books at a reasonable price.

    • Caz says:

      You’re very welcome! I could easily have put a number of titles by both of those authors on the list, because they’re so consistently good.

      I hope you enjoy reading them.

  5. Wendy says:

    I’ve been meaning to try Stella Riley for just ever, but always forget. Thanks for the reminder and the great list!

    • Caz says:

      You won’t regret it, honestly! Almost all her books are out as ebooks now (there’s one more to come) so there’s no need to pay stupid prices to get hold of them.

  6. Blackjack1 says:

    Nice list! I have not yet read Grace Burrowes but from what you and others have stated about the quality of her writing and many of the reviews here of her work, she is likely an author I would enjoy.

    • Caz says:

      Thanks. I hope you enjoy whichever of her books you decide to try. I recently reviewed “Darius” here, which is the first in a new series, and gave it an A-, so that’s worth a look :)

  7. LeeB. says:

    I love Elisabeth Fairchild but don’t think I’ve read that book. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Caz says:

      You’re welcome :) The Fairchild book was actually published for the very first time at the end of last year. I hope you like it as much as I did – I thought it was beautiful.

  8. NBLibGirl says:

    Like several others here, I’ve already read and love many of the titles you recommend so will definitely be giving the others a try (Riley, Motley, Fairchild). Thanks for a great post.

    Can’t help noting that when I play with my own type of Top 10 lists, if Kleypas makes the cut . . . which she usually does . . . I have trouble deciding between Devil in Winter and Suddenly You. . .

    • Caz says:

      I hope you enjoy them!

      I had about 5 or 6 “also-rans” on my list, I admit (including a Carla Kelly and a Barbara Metzger), so yeah, it was tough. But nothing has to stay set in stone. Maybe we’ll revisit these at some point to see how/if they’ve changed!

  9. pwnn says:

    Because you have Venetia and The Rake on your list – both near perfection and I adored Bound By Your Touch and very much liked Lady Awakened I’m going to be adding the Riley, Fairchild (adored her Sugarplum Surprises) and Motley to my every growing pile.

    • Caz says:

      I’m glad you liked the list and have found some new things to read. It’s always good to find other people with similar tastes :)

  10. Renee says:

    I totally agree with your list. For the Love of a Soldier was excellent. And the Rake and the Devil in Winter are two all-time favorites of mine. I think what distinguishes these books are the strong character development and the authors’ ability to make the plots unique.

    • Caz says:

      Thank you! I could quite happily read a story where not much happens – in the way of plotty things – if I care about the characters and the relationship is well developed. That’s one of the things I read romance FOR – the character and relationship development, so if I can’t work out what the H/h see in each other, it’s not going to work for me.

  11. Stella Riley says:

    This is first-class list – and not just because one of mine is on it! I have read and loved Venetia and Bound by your Touch and, though I’ve enjoyed other novels by Grace Burrowes, I have been saving The Bridegroom Wore Plaid to read on holiday. Now I can have also added The Rake, The Devil in Winter and The Christmas Spirit to my list.
    Thank you, Caz.

  12. [...] all the best books I’ve read recently have come from her suggestions. Also look out for her >Top Ten Picks at <a href=http://www.likesbooks.com – in which she kindly included my own A Splendid [...]

  13. readasalot says:

    This Elisabeth Fairchild book “The Christmas Spirit”: I have to know it, does he die at the end, no happy end? Sometimes I can endure “no happy end” books or books where they die and have some sort of mysthical happiness, but if I read them at the wrong time I really have problems!
    Thanks for the list, I read and loved 50 percent of it, so I will read the rest – jus not sure about the Fairchild book……….

    • Caz says:

      It’s hard to say without spoiling it completely. It’s a happy ending – but not as we know it, Jim. Let’s say the hero doesn’t die young. If you want a more detailed idea, please email me at the address I’ve given on my AAR profile page and I’ll happily fill you in :)

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