Our Favorite Romantic Films

2015-02-013There’s an obscure little film called Fifty Shades of Grey out for Valentine’s Day–today!– this year. Maybe you’ve already bought your tickets. Maybe you’re waiting to see it on Netflix. Maybe you’re waiting until hell freezes over. While we do have some staffers who are planning to see it and write a review, in the meantime, here are some favorite romantic films AAR staffers have already seen and can enthusiastically suggest for a romantic night in.

Caroline: I think nothing sets the mood like laughing together, so I pick Bridget Jones’s Diary. This movie has great one-liners, a fantastic cast (someone finally let Hugh Grant have some fun!) and a really lovely core relationship in which Mark Darcy falls in love with Bridget – just as she is.

(Side note: I floated this question to my husband, who promptly nominated Happy Gilmore. I said, “Why am I even married to you?” Then he said, “Oh, wait, can I suggest a miniseries? Because that latest Jane Eyre (Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens) was awesome.” Ah, that’s why.)

LinnieGayl: I’m going with a pair of movies: Beauty and the Beast (Disney version) and La Belle et la Bête (1946) (Cocteau). I saw the Cocteau version years ago in a college French lit class and it made a huge impression. I didn’t think I’d like the Disney version, but when my niece was little she could convince me to watch anything, and I fell in love all over again, so much so that it became a family Christmas Eve tradition. What’s particularly romantic about both versions for me is that our heroine manages to see through the ugly façade of the Beast and fall deeply in love with his inner beauty.

Anne: Dang! Somebody beat me to La Belle et la Bête! :) I even have the two-disc edition of the French version with the commentary. Although some of the commentary takes the fun out of the movie, especially when they criticize the heroine’s acting. The behind-the-scenes stuff is great, though. Did you realize it was almost impossible to find clean white sheets in postwar France?

Haley: I think my favorite romance movie (although it’s actually a mini series) is North and South by the BBC. There is just nothing that compares to the gorgeous Richard Armitage being madly in love with his lady. I have seen it so many times.

My favorite Rom-Com is the French film I Do (Prête-moi ta main) because it is really silly and yet heartwarming at the same time. It has some really zany moments that make me laugh and I was totally rooting for the couple the whole time.

I also second the vote for the first Bridget Jones’s Diary because what is there not to love about Colin Firth and Hugh Grant tussling in the street?

Mary: North and South is also in my top 10 romantic movies of all time. I absolutely love this movie and have watched it at least 10 times. Sometimes, I just put in the DVD and fast forward to all of the best parts. One of the best romances was Firelight with Sophie Marceau and Stephan Dillane. Then there are the two most recent adaptations of Jane Eyre and the series and movie adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. The girls in my family get together periodically to watch romantic movies, and last year we watched The Outsider (based on Penelope Williamson’s novel) with Naomi Watts. The only problem with romance movies is there are not nearly as many of them as romance books

Lee: I’m going to go with While You Were Sleeping with Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman. She falls in love with Peter Gallagher, who doesn’t really know who the heck she is but then he is injured and she rescue him and he falls into a coma. There are so many fun scenes with Sandra Bullock’s boss and her landlord’s son as well as lovely family scenes with Bill Pullman’s family. My favorite scene is when he gives her a snow globe of the city of Florence.

Heather: My favorite romantic movie is Dirty Dancing. I distinctly remember seeing it in the theater and having the sudden realization that boys were not “yucky,” not at all. It’s infinitely quotable, but my favorite line comes from Baby: “And most of all I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you.

Bessie: I always remember And Now My Love  (Toute Une Vie) from 1974. It ends with the couple’s meeting– the story arc of the film is how both their pasts going back two generations brought them together.

Maggie: I’ve done a few blogs on favorite movies, notably one about buried treasure romance films and another on favorite teen romance films. Sadly, the only new film I’ve added to my lexicon of beloved romance movies since then is About Time. This sweet movie is about geeky Tim who is “too thin, too tall, too orange”. When he becomes a barrister in London, a night out with a friend has him meeting Mary, an ordinary girl who seems extraordinary to him. When a time travel glitch tears them apart Tim expends all efforts in getting her back and creating an extraordinary, ordinary life with her.

Jenna: I don’t think I can pick just one for my all-time favorite romantic movie. If I did, it would probably be one of the Austen’s – either Pride and Prejudice (either Kiera Knightly or Jennifer Ehle version) or Sense and Sensibility, so I won’t go with the obvious. I will say that my favorite swoon-worthy romantic movie may have to be Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day Lewis and Madeleine Stowe. Who doesn’t just want to melt when Hawkeye tells Cora “Stay alive! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you.“? It’s like an historical romance novel come to the screen. My favorite doomed romance has to be Shakespeare In Love with Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. My heart just broke at the end when they had to part forever. And my all time favorite sweet romance has to be Disney’s Tangled. I don’t care if he is animated, I just fell in love with Flynn Ryder!

I think my favorite epic romance might be Baz Luhrmann’s Australia with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. I thought this was one of the most underrated movies – it didn’t get great press nor do very well at the box office, I believe. But the chemistry between Nicole and Hugh was white hot. Also, the story is absolutely one of enemies to lovers, which I always love when done well. All of it set in a time period and location that should be used in romances more often – Northern Australia at the beginning of World War II. It truly is an epic story, spanning several years. I cried more than once and – SPOILER ALERT – the moment when the Drover realizes that Sarah is still alive….swoon!!

Caz: I’ve never really noticed this before, but my film-watching tastes are rather different from my reading ones, as I’m not a great fan of romantic movies. Perhaps it’s because the ones I’ve seen have been disappointing – I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I suppose it at least didn’t mean that I had hundreds of favourites to choose from for this post; in fact I’ve got just two from the last few decades. I agree that While You Were Sleeping with Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman is wonderfully romantic without being sappy, and both leads were perfect in their roles. I also loved the warm and slightly crazy family dynamic that is everything Lucy never had and something she longs for as much as she longs for someone to love her.

My other favourite is When Harry Met Sally. Friends-to-lovers is a trope I generally like in books, and this one is the queen of the crop. Smart and Funny is my catnip, and this has both in spades.

Other than that, I go back several decades to the great movie couples of the 30s and 40s – perhaps not romances, but definitely romantic, I can watch The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, His Girl Friday, Bringing up Baby and others of their ilk until the cows come home.

Blythe: I feel like my favorite romantic movies have shifted as I have gotten older and my life has changed. There are always oldies but goodies – I mean, I NEVER get tired of the A&E Pride and Prejudice, which I think was total perfection. But of the last decade, my favorite has to be The Holiday. Granted, the Jude Law factor is huge for me. But I also like that they are adults who have had relationships before, and I find myself relating to Cameron Diaz. Now, if I could also relate to her gorgeous Los Angeles home and ability to pack up on a whim and go to a cottage in Surrey for Christmas, that would be kind of nice.

Dabney: That’s a challenge… there are so many good choices. (Love stories are my favorite kind of film.) My current favorite is probably Notting Hill, which was the second big hit from Richard Curtis. (The first was Four Weddings and a Funeral which I would love a lot more if it were Three Weddings and a Funeral and the Hugh Grant character had ended up with the lovely if “Duck Faced” Henrietta. I also love About Time and most but not all of Love Actually, also from Mr. Curtis.) My favorite romantic tear jerker is The Way We Were which my husband can’t make it through without bawling alongside me. My favorite romantic comedy is Bull Durham which is also my favorite sports comedy. No one unsnaps a garter like Kevin Costner. (Second place: Moonstruck, the only film I ever found Nic Cage attractive in.) My favorite teen romance is Say Anything, the film that made John Cusack a star and began Cameron Crowe’s illustrious directing career. Lastly, my favorite oldie but goldie is The Sound of Music.

Melanie: I’m not much for romance movies, honestly – I’m more an action girl. If I had to pick some of my favorites though, I’d have to start with The Princess Bride – how can you not? It’s got the epic love story, the action and the comedy, and just enough cheese to make it delicious. I absolutely adore The African Queen – it’s kinda a romance, right? Katherine Hepburn wins every time, and I loved Bogart in his role. I also second the vote for the 1993 Much Ado About Nothing (though I did enjoy the more recent Joss Whedon adaptation). The couples had such great chemistry, and nothing beats Kenneth Branagh chewing the Shakespearean scenery.

Meanwhile, a friend is trying to convince me that Kate and Leopold wins for best romantic comedy. My vote is torn between French Kiss (the only Meg Ryan movie I really love. I think it’s because of Kevin Kline) and The Proposal (Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds? Yes please! also, I love the age difference, and how it’s not actually a big part of the story line. It’s just an accepted thing. That seems kinda rare when the woman is older than the man.)

For the epic feel, though, I will always watch and rewatch and cry at Last of the Mohicans. The sweeping majesty of the scenery and the score don’t hurt! :)

Lynn: I think Sense and Sensibility is probably my favorite romantic film. It’s hard to pick just one movie, but this is one of the few that completely swept me away on first viewing. That moment when Colonel Brandon sees Marianne for the first time…you can almost feel the longing come off the screen.

What do you all think? Are your top choices on here, or are there great romantic movies we missed? Given a choice, would you prefer a night in with an old favorite or a night out seeing something new?

Caroline AAR

Posted in All About Romance, Caroline AAR, Movies, Romance | Tagged | 30 Comments

It’s the results of the AAR Annual Reader Poll!

Best 2014 Romance Novels
Best Romance It Happened One Wedding, Julie James
Best Contemporary Romance It Happened One Wedding, Julie James

Best Romantic Suspense

River Road, Jayne Ann Krentz

Best Paranormal Romance Shield of Winter, Nalini Singh
Best Romantic Science Fiction The Kraken King, Meljean Brook
Best Romantic Fantasy Fiction The Winter King, C.L. Wilson
Best Historical Romance Set in the U.K.Honorable Mentions Only Enchanting, Mary Balogh
Rogue Spy, Joanna Bourne
Three Weeks with Lady X, Eloisa James
The Suffragette Scandal, Courtney Milan
Best Historical Romance Not Set in the U.K. My Beautiful Enemy, Sherry Thomas
Funniest Romance It Happened One Wedding, Julie James
Biggest Tearjerker My Beautiful Enemy, Sherry Thomas
Best Love Scenes (in a Mainstream Romance) TIEHonorable Mention Fool Me Twice, Meredith Duran
It Happened One Wedding, Julie James
Rock Addiction, Nalini Singh
Best Category Romance Mr. (Not Quite) Perfect , Jessica Hart
Best Erotica/Romantica Having Her, Jackie Ashenden
Best Romance Short Story A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, Cecilia Grant
Best LGBT Romance Think of England, K.J. Charles
Best Debut Author Sonali Dev
Best Young AdultHonorable Mention Isla and the Happily Ever After, Stephanie PerkinsThe Perilous Sea, Sherry Thomas
Best New Adult The Hook Up, Kristen Callihan
Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements A Grave Matter, Anna Lee Huber
Best 2014 Characters
Best Romance HeroHonorable Mention Duncan West in Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, Sarah MacLeanThorn Dautry in Three Weeks with Lady X, Eloisa James

Best Romance Heroine


Honorable Mention

Frederica (Free) Marshall in The Suffragette Scandal, by Courtney MilanGeorgiana Pearson in Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, Sarah MacLean
Most Tortured HeroHonorable Mention Alastair de Grey in Fool Me Twice, by Meredith DuranFlavian Arnott in Only Enchanting, Mary Balogh
Most Kickass HeroineHonorable Mentions Frederica (Free) Marshall in The Suffragette Scandal, by Courtney MilanGeorgina (Chase) Pearson in Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, Sarah MacLean
Kate Daniels in Magic Breaks, Ilona Andrews
Catherine Blade in My Beautiful Enemy, Sherry Thomas
Best Romance Couple Sidney and Vaughn in It Happened One Wedding, Julie James
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Dreamboat or Douchebag: The Christian Grey Edition

I read my first Harlequin Presents when I was in sixth grade. It was Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe and for the decades since I have remembered the line “With a woman like you there can be no other way.” This was said by the hero moments before he forced himself on the heroine. Because he was an Argentinian cattle baron, in my head the line was delivered in a sexy, sensual Spanish accent.

I mention that experience because when I picked up Fifty Shades of Grey a few months ago I felt very much like I was reliving that first encounter with Harlequin.  It seemed very Old Skool 1980’s bodice ripper. Christian Grey had all the core characteristics of the alpha hero of the time which is described in Beyond Heaving Bosoms as:

These heroes aren’t just determined, assertive, and confident—they’re hard, arrogant, and harsh and the heroine is often afraid of him. He’s a punisher as well as lover and protector, but he hurts her only because he loves her so much. Baby. Punitive kisses were dealt with abandon, and the heroine, after stiffening up and resisting, would eventually soften into his kiss—after all, who wouldn’t love having their lips mashed hard enough to leave bruises? And speaking of bruises: grabbing the heroine by the arms so hard they leave marks was another earmark of Old Skool heroes.

These things are all true of Christian. He’s assertive and confident (who wouldn’t be with that kind of success before age 30), a dominant who believes he should be allowed to punish his lover (submissive). He certainly has a lover who fears him; Anastasia often chirps about how she is afraid of him. Especially since he likes to spank her – and would be totally into other forms of punishment if she was willing.

The above definition, along with being rather simplistic (and therefore succinct which is why I chose it) missed out on listing the attractive parts of this Old Skool hero. They are almost invariably super wealthy and powerful. Some at this point might say money doesn’t matter but what else explains the endless use of millionaire, billionaire and duke in titles? Maybe in real life it doesn’t matter but I think I can say with confidence it clearly matters to quite a few when it comes to fantasy.  Back to the positives of the Old Skool hero: They are handsome, either in the traditional sense like Christian, or in a unique, chiseled, masculine vigor sort of way. They’re charismatic – the heroine and tons of other people are drawn to them.  They might demand total control but inevitably it’s because they want to take care of you. Christian is always concerned for Anastasia’s health since she is too stupid to often forgets to eat and drinks a lot and is pretty darn vapid. Also for her safety (he saves her from a bike messenger accident and later buys her a new car with lots of safety features.)He worries about her career (he offers an internship at his firm almost right away). He concerns himself with how often she is being molested (way more than most of us). So controlling yes, but a caregiver as well.  They are generous, at least with the heroine. They give her lavish gifts, normally uniquely suited to her (in Christian’s case some first edition books of Ana’s favorites). Finally, they are flatteringly obsessed. A man who could have dozens of women for the asking is interested in our average (and in many cases, below average intelligence) heroine. He’s not just interested in her; he is determined to have her.

I think all of that is relevant when we look at the huge success of Fifty Shades of Grey and the surprising popularity of its hero. Because it is my personal opinion that what makes the book and hero popular is that it delivers the Old Skool hero experience without the bodice ripper cover and the scorn heaped upon those who read romance. Fifty Shades of Grey readers read romance without having to say they read romance. Whether it was through the work of a marketing genius or sheer luck, Fifty Shades broke out of its genre and got legitimized by the mainstream in a way any number of novels employing the exact same characteristics have not been able to do.

And I have to admit that after having written all that I went on the internet to look for information on why the book is popular and was surprised to discover that Smart Bitches Sarah mentions this same factor (Old Skool hero) in a blog she did on why 50 Shades is so popular. I think this is less a great minds think alike coincidence than it is a “people who’ve read a lot of romances recognize a romance hero when they see him” fact.

Adding more depth to my argument that 50 Shades readers read romance is the following argument I found in Psychology Today by Linda and Charlie Bloom:

I believe it (the popularity of 50 Shades) has a lot to do with the desire that so many of us have of being swept away from our mundane lives and into a world of passion and ecstasy. One of the things that makes this series so compelling is that it affirms the classic fantasy that the handsome prince is going to ride into our lives on his noble white steed and sweep us off of our feet, take us away from our ordinary existence and bring us to a beautiful castle where we will spend the remainder of our lives living in luxury, leisure, and of course, pleasure!

If that isn’t a pithy definition of about half of the Harlequin Presents line I don’t know what would be.

So how does all this help me come to a conclusion on whether or not Christian Grey is a douchebag or dreamboat? It doesn’t. But it does help explain why my reaction to him was “meh” rather than yay or nay. I’ve spent years reading heroes exactly like Christian.  Unless they do something to push a personal hot button, they no longer have the power to enrage me. They also don’t have the power to enamor me unless they do something extremely right. Christian landed squarely in the middle. He was honest with Anastasia about what he wanted from her, he talked to her (endlessly) about what the relationship would look like and he was kind to her as often as he was cruel. Would their relationship work for me? No. But does that make Christian an eeevvvviiillll villain? Also no.

So there are my completely mediocre feelings on Christian Grey. Now it’s time to put the question to AAR Staff: Christian Grey, dreamboat or douchebag?

Lee: I haven’t read the book, but after reading your blog, I’d say he was an honest but not perfect dreamboat.

Blythe: Straight up douchebag, IMHO. Granted, I didn’t read the last book – just the first two. But Christian is a stalker. He’s controlling. He’s a little smarmy. And I know this is not the point under debate, but his wealth is completely unbelievable. For me the behavior that puts him over the edge is telling Anna what car she needs to drive and then buying her company so he can tell her douchebag boss what to do.

There’s definitely some appeal in his incredible wealth and his very flattering obsession with Anna. I mean, if some rich, handsome guy wants to be obsessed with me because I am just that awesome, I’d probably be cool with that. But if he tells me how to work and what to drive, we’re done.

Melanie: I have to admit, I’ve tried reading 50 Shades three times – I’ve never been able to finish it. Christian creeps me out, but I don’t feel I can really decide on dreamboat or douchebag for him. It’s mainly Anna that I can’t stand, but Christian seems to pull all the stalker tendencies of Edward Cullen (which isn’t surprising, since that’s the basis for the character), and takes controlling to the next level. I don’t like controlling, it’s just not my thing. But he just sits on that line between caring/obsessed and controlling/obsessed, and that’s too close to an abusive relationship for me to feel comfortable with.

Dabney: My sense is that he, while not being my type, is an upfront demanding guy. The real problem with him is that he is drawn to a woman with, at least in the first book, so little agency. The power differential between them is so huge, it reflects poorly on him for wanting a woman who is so not his peer.

Blythe: For me I wouldn’t even say that it is that. It’s more that I can’t even believe that he has the power in the first place, or that she managed to get through college with no email address. I know I harp on that all the time, but with this book you have to take your willing suspension of disbelief, whack it with a sledgehammer, and bury it in the woods somewhere.

Part of it is simply his age. If he were 40, or even 35, I could buy into it more.

Mary: I read all three books precisely so I could understand the phenomena.  It took me a LONG time to get through the first book, but I persevered and found book 2 was slightly better and book 3 much better.  Since this is about the character of Christian and not a critique of the book, I will try to limit my comments to him and not what was wrong with the book(s) – and there is much to critique there.  I did not like Christian at all to begin with.  Controlling men are so not my type.  He was also a tad unbelievable given his success at such a young age.  However, by the second book I started to gain some empathy for him and by the third, I understood why he was the way he was.  Christian was the victim of sexual abuse by an older woman who was a Dom.  He was manipulated during an extremely difficult time in his adolescence.  I see his sexual proclivities as an attempt to regain his own agency.  I think he chose Anna precisely because she was so different from the woman who sexually abused him.  He also had issues about his birth mother and her death that would make anyone a little disturbed.  So the guy had issues.  What I saw through the course of ALL of the books is his growth and coming to terms with what had happened to him.  So while I would not characterize him as a dreamboat, he was not a douche either.  He was just a very unhappy man trying to cope with the injustices life threw his way by himself.  Anna helped him to understand that he needed help and through her encouragement, he got it.  The Christian at the end of book 3 was a much mentally healthier person than the Christian we first meet.

Shannon: I struggled with Christian throughout my reading of the first two 50 Shades books. He was extremely controlling, and, unlike a lot of people, I see nothing romantic or endearing about someone who is obsessed with another person. He seemed to believe he could behave as irrationally as he chose, but the same was not true for Anastasia. She was expected to fall in line with his every whim. Sure, he was kind to Anastasia, but it seemed a superficial kindness. He bought her expensive things as a way to further his control.Although he did grow throughout the two books I read, I didn’t find his growth sufficient. He was still a self-important ass.

Definitely a douche.

So now it’s your turn. Christian Grey, dreamboat, douchebag or who the heck cares?

Maggie AAR


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Dabney’s Best of 2014 List

My romance reading in 2014 can be summed up in one word: Contemporary. When I look at the almost 200 romances I read last year, only a quarter of them were historical romances. In previous years, that number would have been closer to two thirds. Almost all of the historicals I loved almost all came from authors I’ve read and enjoyed in the past whereas many of the contemps that made my Best of list were penned by authors new to me.

My pick for most enjoyable historical romance of the year comes from Eloisa James. Ms. James, when she’s on her game, writes some of the wittiest romances around. Three Weeks with Lady X (DIK review here) is full of sparkling, sexy exchanges between its heroine, Lady Xenobia India St. Claire, and its hero, Thorn (Tobias) Dautry (the illegitimate son of the Duke of Villiers, the hero of A Duke of Her Own.) I love almost everything about this book–the hero’s grand gesture at the end seemed a bit much–especially the letters Xenobia and Thorn send one another while she is overseeing the refurbishment of his estate. Three Weeks with Lady X is my favorite work by Ms. James in several years.

 Mary Balogh is a consistently strong writer of historical romance. Of the 57 Balogh works we’ve reviewed at AAR, we’ve given her 24 A grades, 23 B grades, 8 C grades, and 2 D grades. Her 2014 release Only Enchanting is an AAR DIK (review here.) Reviewer Caz wrote: Only Enchanting is beautifully written, the characters are fully-rounded and the romance is emotionally satisfying. Flavian and Agnes are engaging characters who make a well-matched couple and their HEA feels all the more deserved because of the difficulty of the journey they have undergone in order to achieve it. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. I completely agree. 

Several of my colleagues have included Joanna Bourne’s Rogue Spy on their Best of 2014 lists. Add me to that list. All but one of Ms. Bourne’s books have been DIKs at AAR and the one that isn’t, My Lord and Spymaster, would have gotten an A from me rather than the B+ it received. (Honestly, any book with Adrian/Hawker in it is a book I’ll happily read and read again.) I remain in awe of Ms. Bourne’s plotting. Rogue Spy is set during 1802, the same year that The Spymaster’s Lady takes place. It is, chronologically, the middle book of the Spymasters series, and, though we’ve encountered Pax (the hero of Rogue Spy) in the later books, his story is a completely engrossing surprise.

Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong is a tart, smart holiday novella. I wrote my review for it after reading it once. I’ve since read it again and it’s risen in my estimation. (I originally gave it a B.) Ms. Grant is justifiably known for the clarity and crispness of her writing and, in this work, her characterizations as well as her humor are astute. This novella, like her debut A Lady Awakened (review here), takes a romance cliche–here, the fake marriage–and turns it into something new.

Last September, my social media feeds were full of readers raving about Frozen by Meljean Brook. It’s a novella and was (and still is) priced at .99. I’ve read a few of Ms. Brook’s steampunk love stories and enjoyed them so I downloaded Frozen. I’m glad I did. Ms. Brook doesn’t spend a great deal of time world-building here and that’s a good thing. Her focus is on her lovers and the curse they must break to find their HEA. There’s just enough paranormal here–a giant, a clan of werewolves, and soothsaying mother–to give the story intrigue but the heart of the tale is its lovers and they are a compelling pair.

Personal Geography is another book I discovered via social media. The novel is a first person narrative that tells a complicated and compelling story. India, the heroine, is so vividly drawn that I feel I know her in a way fictional heroines rarely come alive. I seldom read romances with a strong BDSM focus because the sexual relationship doesn’t appeal to me. In this book, however, the sex scenes were so explicative of India’s interior life I found them fascinating. Personal Geography is the first of two books that tell India’s and Chris’s story–the second, Intimate Geography, comes out next month.

Avenge Me by Maisey Yates and Scandalize Me by Caitlin Crews are the first two books in the Fifth Avenue trilogy put out by Harlequin last year. (The third, Expose Me, didn’t hold my attention.) The books tell the story of three men all of whom are determined to destroy a corrupt powerful lawyer whose sexual harassment of the women in his employ is truly evil. The stories are linked but not in a way that makes any of them any less strong as stand-alone reads. The heroes are gorgeous, successful, wealthy males; the women they fall for are strong, brilliant, and sensual. Avenge Me and Scandalize Me are well-done steamy reads–they were my favorite category romances of the year.

If you’re not reading Molly O’Keefe, you are missing out. She’s wonderful. Her Boys of Bishop series is delightful and Indecent Proposal is the best of the bunch. This marriage of convenience story rocks. Ms. O’Keefe’s romances feature adult characters who make messy choices and whose path to true love is tenuous. The leads here, a bartender with a chip on her shoulder and a politician afraid to put anything before his ambition, must overcome their own limitations and doing so is damn hard. The novel is sexy, peopled with great secondary characters, and impossible to put down. I loved it and I can’t wait to read what Ms. O’Keefe writes next.

I am rarely drawn to the nice guys in romance. (I blame an early exposure to Sweet Savage Love.) In fact, there’s only one truly sweet man in this list and that’s Mack Kennedy, the hero of Amy Andrews’s winning No More Mr. Nice Guy. Mack is 100% Dreamboat. He loves his bossy sister, cares for his animal patients with compassion and skill, and, in general, spends his days doing the right thing. But when he discovers his little sister’s best friend Josie has made a sexual to-do list, he decides he’s the man to help her tick off the items on her steamy list. If you’re looking for a sweetheart of a book that will make your pulse rise–Josie has a great list–this is the book for you.

Maisey Yates is the only author who appears twice on my list. Her Untouched was the funniest book I read last year. This book shouldn’t work. The hero’s too old for the virginal heroine and, well, he’s kind of a dick. But he’s the dick trash-talking nerd-girl hero Lark needs and he, rodeo star Quinn Parker, is damn lucky that’s so. Lark and Quinn made me laugh so hard it annoyed my husband who kept asking me, “What’s so funny now?” I’ve read all the books in Ms. Yates’s Silver Creek series and this my favorite thus far.

The other books I loved this year are all mentioned in our staff’s Best of 2014 list. Like Melanie, I adore Larissa Brown’s Beautiful Wreck (review here). Carolyn Crane can write no wrong in my eyes and although I don’t love Into the Shadows quite as much as Heather does, Off the Edge (review here) the former gets my vote for Romantic Suspense novel of the year. I’ve slavered Jackie Ashenden’s Having Her–my pick for best book of the year–so often but humor me: It really is a great read.



Posted in Best of List, Dabney AAR, Romance | Tagged | 3 Comments

Talking with Larissa Brown about Beautiful Wreck, knitting, Iceland, and old Norse

One of my goals for 2015 is to read all the romances my colleagues here at AAR picked as their choice for Best of 2014. (That column is here.) The first one I chose was Melanie’s: Beautiful Wreck by Larissa Brown. (You can read Melanie’s DIK review here.) I loved this book. I’d give it six stars if I could. And, once I read it, I couldn’t stop wondering about it. So, there was nothing for it but to ask Larissa Brown if she’d answer some questions for me. She graciously said yes.

Dabney: Beautiful Wreck is your debut novel. I find this rather astonishing. Your prose and your plot are wonderfully confident and strong. How long have you been writing?

​Larissa: Thank you so much for your kind words about my book and for interviewing me. Though Beautiful Wreck is my first novel, I have written two books about the craft of knitting and I write essays about craft for magazines or I self-publish them on my site. I blogged for 10 years and built a following of “fans” that I consider more like friends.

The writing is very different. The novel is so much more personal and was initially hard for me to share. But it had some lessons in common with the craft books, such as persevering to finish a manuscript, and the ins and outs of publishing and promotion.

Dabney: Jenn/Ginn, the heroine of your book, is from our future–is it the beginning of the 22nd century?–and lives in modern Iceland. In her time, there are no real animals and hardly anything left of the natural world? Why? Did you have a backstory for how Earth became so, to me, sterile?

​Larissa: I’m glad it felt sterile, because that is Jen’s experience of her time, and we feel it through her point of view. ​Jen is odd, because in a world where people are obsessed with playing roles, she craves something real and genuine. I hope that the cold and flat future fuels her central desire and drives her character. Being from the future is key, just one reason being that Jen does not share the superstitions of the past and this allows her to love Heirik.

Dabney: Ginn travels through time to 10th century Iceland, onto an island of Vikings. Why did you pick Iceland?

Larissa: ​Iceland is gorgeous and epic and unreal. I hoped for my book to have some of those same qualities. Once I’d seen the country (on a too-short research trip) the landscape became almost like a character to me.​

Initially, I chose it for practical reasons. One was peace. I wanted a hero who was not out burning down villages and fighting. I wanted him to be close to the heroine and spend tender time with her. Also, Iceland is the one place where Vikings’ everyday life was recorded (albeit a couple centuries later, after the conversion to Christianity.) So I had some guidance about their worldview and daily lives.

Also, bathing. Iceland is full of hot springs and bathing pools everywhere in the ground, and Vikings were known for spending a lot of time in them. Hygiene implements have been found in ruins there, including tools to clean your ears, and people in Iceland had access to herbs they used for mouthwash. Our hero is kissably clean!

Dabney: The world Ginn goes to is one far most sophisticated than most of us would credit existing in the 10th century. And yet your book feels meticulously true. You must have done an extraordinary amount of research for Beautiful Wreck. When did that process begin? What was the most interesting thing or things you learned?

Larissa: Thank you. Yes, I did a ton of research, and whenever possible it was hands-on. The key question for me was: How would a woman from the future feel when trying to learn to fit in here? What would she see? So I tried things. I tried to learn the craft of naalbinding to make socks, I shot arrows in the little alley behind my house, I dyed yarn with birch leaves, I rode an Icelandic horse, and I walked around a weekend SCA re-enactment in a 10-pound linen dress.

However, the book is definitely not a history lesson. Where there were scant details, I made lots of things up. I hope that it’s the small moments of daily life – which I think all humans share – that give it a feeling of authenticity.

The most interesting thing I learned was that I’d accidentally picked one of the most romantic spots on earth for my story. Early on, I chose a real Viking house that was the location for Ginn’s farm, so that I’d have a reference for my landscape.

Like Jen, I found myself squinting at a screen wanting to go there. So I did go there, and my first thought was that the Viking who built the house there truly knew poetry. Walking around, my traveling companions and I found the most gorgeous waterway, with big rocks leading down to twin waterfalls, and we were basically stunned. It became a setting in my book.

(Ginn’s house can be seen on my Pinterest board and also in an episode of Game of Thrones. I was thrilled when the Wildlings raided it. It is a horribly violent scene, but my eyes were just glued to her grass-covered house and stable yard.)

Dabney: The Iceland of your world is remote from the rest of the world and yet not entirely isolated. At one point in the book one of the characters tells a story in which men who go to “the end of the known world” and trade “for slippery cloth spun by insects.” Did that detail come from your research? Did the Vikings in Iceland travel to China?

Larissa: ​It did come from my research, though I didn’t know if Icelanders had a word for silk, so I made up a phrase for it. Vikings traveled as far East as Central Asia. The traded for silk and also for spices, wine, sliver and more. Heirik’s family would not have gone there themselves. He personally has never left Iceland. But his family is rich – richer than any family that would have actually settled there – and his brother travels to other parts of Europe to trade.

Dabney: Cloth, weaving, crafts: These all figure mightily in your story. In the novel, Ginn arrives in Iceland wearing an Icelandic red dress which you describe her in again and again. How many dresses would a woman like Ginn–who is presumed to be from an elevated class–have had in that world? Would she have had more than Betta, her friend, who is from a lowly origin?

Larissa: ​This is one thing I guessed about. I figured that a rich woman would have multiple dresses, but that in Iceland rich was a relative term. I decided she would have three dresses: a working dress, the pretty red one she arrives in, and a formal equivalent of a gown. The thralls (slaves) would have washed them for her. When the family takes Betta into the main house, they would have given her more clothes and basically cleaned her up so that she was appropriate.

Dabney: Betta’s father is a thrall–a slave. How did these people come to have their slaves?

Larissa: I decided early on that for romantic fiction, I was not going to delve into or dwell on slavery, because it is a complex topic and not what Ginn’s love story is about. However, I learned a lot, some of which applied to her friend Betta.

In very early Iceland, slaves (called thralls) would have come on the boats with their masters, since only a couple other humans are known to have lived on the island prior to the late 800s. Thralls were purchased in the Danish lands or forcibly taken from the islands along the way. Especially in Iceland, where it was a pioneer land with no kings and everyone had to work​, relationships and status were probably less clear. I don’t know if I have it right AT ALL. I believe Betta would have been technically free, because she was third generation, but she had nowhere else to go.

Dabney: From the moment Ginn sees Heirik, the young chief of the tribe, she is struck by his physical presence. And yet, to his people, he is terrible to look at because part of his face and body are covered by a port wine stain or birthmark. What made you pick that for him?

Larissa: I needed for Heirik to be lonely and awkward in a way that matched Ginn’s loneliness. They are the only ones for each other in all of time. She is the only person who can love him, since she is from outside their culture. And ​I had to have a reason that Heirik – THE best catch in the country – would not already be in a partnership of marriage (which at the time would be more of a business partnership between families which might or might not include love and attraction. Another thing I bent to my fictional will was that several marriages in my book are based on epic love.

Dabney: Ginn is, in this book, the only time traveler. This seems to be both something specific to her and something enhanced by the technology of her time. Do you envision others able to travel as she does?

Larissa: ​Absolutely! I am working on a companion book in which someone follows her.​ I don’t want to give away much about it, though, because I’m writing it now and think it’s coming out really fun.

Dabney: There are no mirrors in your 10th century world–no one uses anything, not metal, not water, to see him or herself. Why is that?

Larissa: ​Heirik’s mother would have gotten rid of anything that hurt him, but I don’t think in general that a mirror would have been a priority the way it is for us today. (Women groomed the men and made them look exactly how they wanted, which I think is an excellent system.) There is a motif of hiding throughout the book, and I wanted Heirik to be clueless about his own image. I hope the reader will wonder: Is he actually ugly? And what does that really mean when it’s in the eye of the beholder?

Dabney: Tell me about the language of the book. I know nothing about ancient Icelandic… unlike you!

Larissa: ​Hah! Well, I own A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, if that counts as knowledge. I have a friend who speaks Old Norse and a very rudimentary understanding of today’s Icelandic. After gathering all that intelligence, I made up their words. It was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing. I had the most fun inventing insults and my own kennings (Viking compound-word-poems that revealed a lot about their worldview.)

Dabney: Are you done with these characters? I confess, I want to know what happens to Heinrik’s brother Brosa and what happens to Ranka, a little girl in the story, when she grows up!

Larissa: ​No way! I’m not done with them. Brosa is the main male character in the next book set in this world, which I’m tentatively calling So Wild A Dream.​ Here’s another atypical “hero.” I think of this Viking saying when I think of him: “Who can say what sorrow a carefree man bears to his life’s end?”

Dabney: What is next for you?

Larissa: ​Right now, I am on a writing retreat where I’m working to finish a novella that’s set in a different world. I’m also at work on the much-longer So Wild A Dream.​ I’ll let the world know through all my social media channels when each of these comes out.

If you want to link to places where people can find out about my books, my website is here: www.larissabrown.net

And I post pictures of my #writingspot multiple times a week on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/beautifulwreckbook

Also, I give sneak peeks and knitting-related news through my newsletter: http://eepurl.com/Y9N4T

Thank you again!

Dabney: Thank you.


Posted in Authors, Best of List, Dabney AAR, Interviews | Tagged , | 3 Comments

A Guest Pandora’s Box: Judith Ivory’s Beast

Hello everyone and welcome to the first in what we hope will be on-going series here on the AAR blog. Every month or so we’re going to choose a romance and have a discussion about it, we being Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall, a relative newcomer to the romance genre, whose other hobbies involve hats, swords and tea (though rarely together).

In this Pandora’s Box guest bloggers Alexis Hall and Elisabeth Lane discuss Beast by Judith Ivory, published in 1997. It’s a beauty and the beast type story featuring a beautiful American heiress, Louise Vandermeer, and her husband-to-be, a French prince and – of all things – perfumier,  Charles d’Harcourt.  The first part of the book is set aboard a cruise ship during a storm: concerned for his future wife’s fidelity, Charles decides to woo her in disguise, a “joke” that backfires when they discover they have a real connection. The second part of the book is set in France, after they’re married, as they have to deal with the fallout of this Very Stupid Idea.

AJH: So, Elisabeth: broad impressions. How’d you find it?

Elisabeth: I was blown away by this book. It’s unconventional in pretty much all the ways. And I think sometimes the danger of that is that the romance can get lost. But it’s also, I thought, incredibly romantic. You have this anonymous shipboard romance in the first half and then this marriage-in-trouble romance in the second half and the two pieces still manage to work well together to create an incredibly satisfying whole. What did you think?

AJH: I agree. I thought it was glorious, for all the reasons you mention. And it was just stuffed full of things I Really Like. I have kind of a weakness for beautiful heroines, partially because beautiful people (especially beautiful women) are usually cast as antagonists to the nice/witty protagonist with the fine eyes, but also because there seems to be this myth that being beautiful will solve all your problems and make you powerful and this isn’t something the rest of us can identify with or be interested in. But most the truly beautiful people I’ve met have actually suffered a great deal for it. It’s certainly power that comes with a cost. But I felt this was a really compassionate, subtle portrait of a complex woman, and being beautiful is something she herself to navigate and think about. It’s even got this proto-NA vibe in a way because she’s eighteen years old and has no idea who she is or how to become someone she likes or live a life she wants to live. And I was actually quite intrigued by the hero too. I thought he was a dick in new and unusual and really rather compelling ways.

Elisabeth: Wow. You thought he was a dick? I mean, I guess I can sort of see that. But, aside from Louise’s beauty, her main defining feature is that she’s been sheltered to death by her parents and is desperate for adventure. She says at one point that “there is a real seduction to having someone listen and know you, accept you just as you are” and I think that, in addition to the frankly mind-blowing sex, is what he offers her. At her desire. And he demands enthusiastic consent from her in the process.

AJH: I said he was a dick in new, unusual and compelling ways – that was a compliment! But I’d suggest there’s an extent to which consent is already compromised when you’re pretending to be someone else…. although, to be fair, I don’t think the book is recommending this as a seduction strategy. He’s very aware of what an incredible mess he’s making of everything, how problematic his own behaviour is, and the consequences of what he does on both are them are far-reaching and long-lasting.

Elisabeth: The first thing I noticed about Charles is just how closely he corresponds to the Beauty and the Beast fairytale conception. It seems every adaptation I’ve read (and I’ve read lots because it’s my FAVORITE) refers to the Beast’s problems his eyesight–in this case a lack of depth perception. In Charles’ case, it’s because of a birth defect that has blinded him in one eye. Plus there’s the sense of smell thing. He has a preternaturally keen sense of smell.

AJH: Beauty and the Beast is also my FAVOURITE but, honestly, the short-sightedness thing is an element of the story I’ve largely failed to note. For me, Charles was quite refreshing as a Beast-archetype because he wasn’t hideously scarred and living alone in a dark castle somewhere. In my admittedly more limited experience, beasty romance heroes are very explicitly perceived and presented as monstrous, whereas he is very overtly sexy and sexual, and a lot of his ‘beastliness’ is – as you’ve said – is less explicit: it’s his sense of smell, and his temper, and his pride.

Elisabeth: His psychology is definitely fascinating. He’s not a very reliable narrator of his own internal monologue. He’s so insecure. And yet also so confident. I can’t help but think it’s almost of the “fake it til you make it” variety. And he has largely succeeded. Well, until he meets Louise. Which brings his childhood insecurities back with a vengeance–all the problems he had relating to girls his own age growing up. Especially the pretty ones.

AJH: I think Charles and Louise are both fascinating, actually. I thought the character work through the whole novel was … amazingly deft, especially because Ivory doesn’t flinch from making them both deeply unpleasant in a lot of (very human and understandable ways). What really struck me about the fairytale aspects of the story was that, really, they’re both Beauty and they’re both the Beast, fantastical outsiders in what is otherwise quite an everyday world.

Elisabeth: Fantastical outsiders? I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

AJH: Well they’re both marked by a physicality that makes them striking (Louise for her beauty, Charles for his virility … I guess?) and they’re both at once empowered and limited and defined by that. They’re both kind of frightening, to themselves and to each other, both insecure, both lonely, both rather savage and rather cruel, and she’s “faking it til she makes it” just like he is. I felt rather than being a Beauty and the Beast story where one character (the heroine) is Beauty and the other character (the hero) is Beast, they embodied aspects of both – revealing those archetypes to be, not opposites, but ultimately the same.

Elisabeth: I think that tends to be true of all the best Beauty and the Beast stories–where each character is revealed to have aspects of both. Though this is a really great example, for sure, and I think Ivory’s writing in general is just first-rate. There have been some discussions lately about prose quality in romance and so I guess that’s why I was focused a lot on the writing specifically when I was reading. But there’s a fluidity to her transitions between scenes that struck me as uncommon. There’s this one scene early on when Louise shows up to Charles’ stateroom slightly sloshed. But there’s a chapter break in there. And I feel like a lot of writers would have…well…forgotten that Louise had already been drinking. It’s a relatively trivial example, but the book is just loaded with them.

AJH: I agree – there’s definitely a kind of ornate density to her prose. I could also why someone might be inclined to see it as florid, but I found it incredibly compelling and effective.

Elisabeth: It’s interesting that you use the word florid. I can certainly see where someone might say she’s indulging in “purple prose”. But it’s one of those things about romance that I think is endemic to the genre. There’s an emotional quality to prose that has a lushness, which is sometimes denigrated. But I think it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t have power. Out of context, it’s easy to make fun of. But within the framework of a love story, it’s just one way to enhance the impact of these people on each other and on the reader.

AJH: It really worked for me. I was often very taken by how vivid it was. The imagery around Louise, in particular, is so redolent of sensuality and wealth: at one point she’s described as wearing a necklace of black pearls that look like caviar. I thought that was so striking. Although there was actually a moment in the story when I was like “ohmygodtoomuch!” It’s the scene at the end where Charles gives Louise a necklace of black pearls (to replace the ones she lost on the ship) and she has a strong negative reaction to them. As a consequence, the prose becomes almost unbearable – the sheer weight of the words bearing down on you. But, again, when I took a step back, I realised just how well that scene had been constructed, and the way the language both framed and reflected Louise’s fear and confusion:

The necklace’s miserable clasp had eighty-seven pieces to it. It was hard and sharp-edged and tiny. Her blasted hair was everywhere, in the way, snarling through a pearl-strung nightmare. A heavy, slithering strand, parted over one breast, a cord that swayed, as slick as glass, all but alive, licking, flicker-tongued, to her waist, looping.

Elisabeth: It’s interesting that you noticed that. I…um…didn’t. I think I’ve just been reading romance for so long that I don’t even question that stuff any more, but looking back at the passage you’re describing, I can see that you’re obviously right. I just thought it of it as a particularly emotional scene. One that should have been the pivotal scene really, but felt broken into two parts. The ending felt fractured to me, which is one of my few criticisms of the book.

AJH: How so?

Elisabeth: I just got very impatient with Charles and Louise at the end. There’s this moment where Louise had figured out the truth of their interactions on the ship, but Charles is unwilling to admit what he’d done. His admission comes right at the end, right when it’s almost too late and Louise is ready to give up on him. Some of the crisis happened too late for me.

AJH: I can see why you felt that, but I was pretty satisfied by it. My favourite line in the whole book is when Charles says to Louise “I want you to choose me. Freely. I want you to come at me headlong with all the force of your steely will.” It’s swoonishly romantic but it also seemed important to me that the ending of the book was … a choice for Louise? Like she actually gets to do that. Not just be swept away in a tide of strong feelz and revelations and forgiveness. So the scene that felt-like-the-climax-but-wasn’t didn’t trouble me. But you said that was one of your few criticisms. What were the others? I have to confess I read it in a tide of joy and didn’t really have any.

Elisabeth: What kept cropping up for me, particularly in the first half of the book, were these vaguely uncomfortable concerns about cultural appropriation. It’s something that I had a hard time wrapping my head around since it has this white hero pretending to be not white for his own purposes.

AJH: Well, I don’t think it’s meant to be okay?

Elisabeth: Well, I agree with that ultimately, but it was a close thing for me.  It seems to me that Ivory is at least aware of what she’s up to. Louise does go to the ship’s library and attempt to learn more about the supposed culture of her “Arab” lover. And there’s an acknowledgement in the way Ivory describes this research Louise does in the ship’s library when she discovers her lover’s Arab identity–”all interpreted through Western prejudice” as Ivory says–that seems to indicate she understands the potential for giving offense. And then again at the end where I might be reading too much into this–“Her pasha, for God’s sake. Why did women think this way?”–but maybe seems like…a dig at romance’s propensity for, well, fetishizing Sheikhs.

AJH: I did wonder if that was a reference to the Sheikh romance thing. And I did also tilt my head a bit about the whole Arab-disguise subplot. Obviously, I can see that for some readers it might just be a straight up No Go area in the sense that it’s just objectively wrong  to appropriate another culture in that way, even if you’re aware that it’s wrong. I mean, there was really no reason Charles couldn’t have disguised himself as A Different White Dude. For me though, like you, there were a couple of mitigating factors that didn’t make it too awful (but this is just me – someone else’s mileage may vary) which is the awareness you mention. And there’s also the fact the whole ruse is only possible because they’re both vastly ignorant, and his ignorance is regularly demonstrated. Like when Charles orders champagne. While pretending to be a Muslim. Cough.

Elisabeth: That’s something that consistently trips me up when it comes to Sheikh romance. It’s rare to find one that I think handles the religious questions well or fairly.

AJH: I confess, it’s not a subgenre I’ve much explored. I’m a bit nervous of it for, well, the reasons you mention above. How do you find it?

Elisabeth: Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve only read half a dozen myself and have yet to find one that didn’t push one button or another. I’m open to suggestions to though if anyone out there has one they particularly favor.

AJH: Any final thoughts on Beast?

Elisabeth: Mainly that as with most authors I end up adoring, I just love Ivory’s sense of humor. There are these little jokes and ironies sprinkled throughout that just make the book enormously fun and engaging. Otherwise I think we’ve pretty well covered it. I have to go glom the rest of Ivory’s backlist now.

AJH: I loved it, but I’m a fan of Ivory in general. There’s so many little details in this book that delighted me – I adored the ways she played on the fairytale, and our expectations of it, and I thought ambergris worked really well as a ‘rose’ symbol substitute. And I am just a sucker for Unsympathetic People Romances. Which isn’t to say that either Louise or Charles are that awful, it’s just they’re full of unglamously human flaws and insecurities. And I totally dig that stuff.

We hope you’ll join us in the comments for more discussion of Beast because, honestly, we had real trouble stopping talking about it.

And if you want to read-along at home, next month we’ll be looking at: Getting Dirty by Erin Nichols.


Elisabeth and Alexis


Posted in Guest Posts, Pandora's Box | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

Maggie’s Best of 2014 List

What constitutes a DIK/5 Star/Best of romance? For me, a DIK romance is a book that delights me, with characters I at least like (but normally, I love them) and a romance that leaves my heart a little gooey. I thoroughly enjoy reading it, don’t want to put it down, am sad when it is over and it normally sends me on a glom of the author’s back list. Or at least it sends me to Amazon to check when the next novel is coming. A good book is a good experience; it’s an event that you want to repeat and most of the time, repeat as soon as possible.

This year I read approximately 165 books, 18 of which are DIKs. Four of them – the fabulous Mark of the Tala by Jeffe Kennedy, Rachel Hore’s charming A Place of Secrets, Leila Rasheed’s Downton Abbey-esque Cinders and Saphires and Francine River’s Redeeming Love – were published prior to 2014. Two of them – Mitosis by Brandon Sanderson and A Cowboy Unmatched by Karen Witemeyer – were novellas. Two of them – Fear Nothing by Lisa Gardener and Precious Thing by Colette Macbeth – are not romances. Here are the romances that were on that list:

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok – I loved the Cinderella nature of the tale, the unique look into Chinese-American culture, the heroine Charlie and her irrepressible spirit and generosity and the gentle, hopeful nature of the love story. So few books do a good job of capturing what it’s like to be a first generation American but this novel captured it perfectly.

Only Enchanting by Mary Balogh – I fell a little in love with hero Flavian Arnott, Viscount Ponsonby while reading this novel and am glad I found his heroine, Agnes Keeping, worthy of him. I liked that they brought out the best in each other. I always love Balogh’s depiction of the Regency period and I loved that the book is a love story between adults. So often romance novels depict love stories between 30 year old juvenile delinquents – I am always delighted when I read one about grown-ups.

It Happened One Wedding by Julie James – It had me at the opening scene in the coffee shop. When Sidney Sinclair shoots down pick up artist Vaughn Roberts it is just priceless. When they meet again later it is completely delicious. The book had a lot of LOL moments for me as well as just being a completely charming romance. Easily my favorite funny of 2014.

This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner – Jubilee Chase and Flynn Cormac are fighting on opposite sides of a vicious revolution. Adding to the fun is the fact that there is something seriously wrong with the planet they are on. When they meet they should hate each other but somehow that’s not at all what happens. They feel a strong physical attraction, sure, but beyond that there is a sense of shared values – both Flynn and Jubilee are big picture people and it is that ability to see a world of possibilities and responsibilities beyond themselves that draws them to each other.

Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin – I love how Lin is able to capture the essence of a culture and make it both true to itself and relatable to the audience. That brilliance is in full force in this novel. Adding to the charm is the lovely, slow paced romance intertwined with court intrigue and daring adventure.

The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin – Lin is the only author to appear twice on this list and both times it’s for the same reason. She writes fabulous romances, interesting characters, intricately plotted mystery adventures and detailed, fascinating history. In short, Lin is a master of her craft. This love story between courtesan Mingya and Constable Wu Kaifeng is both sweet and multi-faceted and an absolute delight to read.

Hour of Need by Melinda Leigh – Leigh’s last few books were at best B reads for me but this book was an eye opener, a complete surprise and joy. Major Grant Barrett is called back from Afghanistan when his brother and sister-in-law are murdered. As guardian to his young niece and nephew Grant feels over whelmed but neighbor Ellie Ross steps in to help. Then both of them find themselves caught in a killers cross hairs. An interesting mystery and a delightful romance made this a top read for me.

Magic Rises by Ilona Andrews – Kate Daniels and her mate, Curran, the Beast Lord, continue their romance amidst a world gone horribly, magically awry. Because they are unable to control their beasts, many shapeshifter children can’t survive to adulthood. There is a medicine that can help but the recipe is closely guarded by the European packs, with whom Curran most assuredly does not get along. When the opportunity arises for the Pack to get their hands on some of the elixir, Kate and Curran do their best to make it happen. But is there really a pot of magic, golden cure at the end of the rainbow – or a trap? Excellent world building places this terrific romance at the top of the paranormal pack.

Silence for the Dead by Simone St. James – No one does as fantastic a job on the eerie, spooky atmosphere needed for the gothic romance as Simone St. James does. In this offering we meet Kitty Weeks and Jack Yates, a nurse and patient at a haunted hospital.

Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White – Jessamin is attending school in Albion and missing her island home of Melei. Her brown skin and low status have made her an outcast but that doesn’t bother her; her interest is in the education. An encounter with the gorgeous, enigmatic Finn, an aristocrat with powerful magic, sets her life on a new course. But Finn has an enemy, the vicious Lord Downpike, who will do anything to steal information Finn possesses. Will the thoroughly unmagical Jessamin be a help or hindrance to Finn? This book combined two great loves of mine: the first is people without magic being an important part of a magical battle and the second is a Regency-esque fantasy novel. Along the line of Patricia C. Wrede’s The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, A Matter of Magic (also by Wrede) , and the novels of Gail Carriger, this is a delightful mix of magic and manners .

That is my list of DIK reads for 2014. So how many books did you read this year? How many were DIKs?


Maggie AAR



Posted in Best of List, Maggie AAR | Tagged | 29 Comments

Speaking of Audiobooks: It’s Almost All Listening for Me These Days

Listening to books

Since I started listening to fictional audiobooks more than twelve years ago (I’ve lost track), I have continued to read print titles while listening to others. Even when I was only reading in print, as a rule, I read three books at a time since variety has always been important in my reading/listening. That meant those three books represented three different genres/sub-genres as well to avoid mixing up the storylines.

Over the past six years, I listened to two books while I read a couple of print titles as well. Occasionally, one book (print or audio) swept me away and demanded all my attention but there was a definite structure there – two audiobooks and two print books were required at all times. Sub-genre variety was no longer much of a concern since narrators provided plenty of diversification on the audio side. And then I realized it was a lot easier to be entirely swept away by an audiobook since I could listen all day.

Now I’m finding that listening to a book is far preferable to reading the print version. Maybe it’s that I’m so accustomed to listening that I am as comfortable with the spoken word as the written. And, of course, significantly influencing my choice to listen is the fact that a talented narrator’s performance usually increases the enjoyment factor.

But you know, for a person like me who apparently loves over-commitment (I must – I live that way), audiobook listening is just so completely efficient. I imagine you have heard me refer to it as my otherwise-occupied activity as I accomplish a great deal while listening – cleaning the kitchen, exercising, driving, folding laundry, or creating in my art room. And being a person who rarely does only one thing at a time, it’s the perfect vehicle for me. As the quality and selection of audiobooks has risen, my time daily with the written page has decreased, so much so that I only read around two complete print books a month whereas I listen to around eight audiobooks in that same time period.

Not just any audiobook by a favorite author will provide the highly entertaining experience I’m referring to. Since Speaking of Audiobooks is read by non-listeners as well as listeners, I want to continually emphasize that which I wrote in the first SOA column six years ago, It’s All About the Narrator. Not just any narrator will do (more about that later).

Who are the authors I still devote time to in print? Primarily, they are favorite authors who have either not yet been released in audio or authors whose work is, in fact, available in audio yet the narrator is not to my liking for one reason or another.

Ellen O’Connell is the author who comes to mind first for required print reading. Her Westerns are simply the best around and I’m holding out hope that she’ll make it to audio someday. But for now, I read each of her books upon release.

I’m a long-time Rachel Gibson fan and I even glom her books occasionally – all in print even though a portion of her backlist has been released in audio. Eleven of her titles are available as audiobooks and are performed by seven different narrators. None have tempted me to try more than an hour or two before I flee to print format where I enjoy the voice in my head far more than that which I just heard playing on my iPod.

Of course, there are the old favorites – those authors whose titles, for the most part, aren’t available in eBook or audio format – Penelope Williamson, Judy Cuevas, Judith McNaught, Patricia Gaffney, Laura Lee Guhrke (early titles), or LaVyrle Spencer. Oh, for even one of these authors to have the ability and desire to implement a Laura Kinsale-like audio plan! I’d love to hear these old favorites performed by a highly talented narrator. But in the meantime, they represent some of the few old paperbacks I still own and read in print.

I also turn to print occasionally to scope out new audio authors as I’m unwilling to commit to an official listen until I know I will appreciate the content. I especially rely on this sort of print research to keep up with New Adult, a category that appears to sell big in audio format and one I enjoy from time to time. I usually read until I’m convinced to buy the audio, declare it a do-not-finish, or sometimes actually read the entire book.

Listening allows me so many more hours of book entertainment than sitting down to read so I imagine that listening will continue to be my “go to” reading preference. However, reading the printed page (eBook) at bedtime remains a beloved ritual. My entire adult life, I have reserved time for quiet reading before drifting off to sleep and I don’t see that changing. It forces this double-tasker to slow down and just relax. Yes, audiobooks have taken over my reading life but print books still hold a small but cherished place in my life.


Upcoming Listens

BurnedBurned – Karen Marie Moning     Narrated by Phil Gigante & Natalie Ross

I have listened to every single KMM title out there and I’m a complete fan. I enjoyed Iced (Moning’s last release), which was billed as the first in the Dani O’Malley series but Burned is Book 7 in the Fever series (and Iced has been changed to Book 6 in the Fever series). KMM listened to fans’ disgruntlement with Dani in Iced and Mac returns to take center stage with Dani. I even hear Barrons will be featured. These books are such a treat for audio enthusiasts with this dream narrator team. We’re not talking alternating point of views here for the narration – this is one of those rare instances where the male narrator performs the male roles and the female narrator performs the female roles.

Ride the Fire – Pamela Clare     Narrated by Kaleo Griffith

It’s the last book on Pamela Clare’s backlist to be released in audio format and it is one of her best. A welcome change from European historical romances, Ms. Clare’s historicals are all set in America during the 18th century. Kaleo Griffith continues with his narration and I have no doubt it will be superb. Ride the Fire was first slated for release in January 2015 but we’ll have to wait until February 19th.

Bound by Flames – Jeaniene Frost     Narrated by Tavia Gilbert

The third in the Night Prince series, I’ve been a Vlad devotee since his introduction in the Night Huntress series and I’ve graded both of the previous audio entries to this series (which features Vlad) an A. What we originally thought was a trilogy looks as though it will have at least one more entry. And wow, Tavia Gilbert! Tavia is one of the reasons I started listening to paranormal romance and I’m sure she will continue to excel in her performance of Frost’s world.

Breaking Point – Suzanne Brockmann     Narrated by Patrick Lawlor and Melanie Ewbank

Breaking Point with the Lawlor/Ewbank team just re-released at Audible on January 15th but it is not a new recording as were Books 1-6 in 2014. Regardless – I’ll be listening soon as it not only is Max and Gina’s story but, just as important, it marks the return of my favorite Brockmann couple, Jones and Molly, from Out of Control.

Bound to Danger – Katie Reus     Narrated by Sophie Eastlake

The first in this series, Targeted, made my Top Ten Listens of 2014 here at Speaking of Audiobooks last month. I’m hoping for more of the same with Bound to Danger. Sophie Eastlake never disappoints in her performance and I’m eager to listen.

The Perfect HomecomingThe Perfect Homecoming – Julia London     Narrated by Tanya Eby

The third in the Pine River series, I enjoyed the first two books in print format and I’ll be listening to this one when it releases on February 24th. It ties up another London series I’ve often wondered about with Thrillseekers Anonymous founder Cooper Jessup (from the Over the Edge series) playing the hero. I love Julia London’s contemporary voice and I expect to be completely entertained.



For the New Listener – Choosing Your Audiobooks

Recently, I spent time reviewing our first Speaking of Audiobooks columns from 2009. I realized how much we talked about the basics of audiobook listening then and how little we talk of it now. So, with today’s column, I’m starting a new section targeting the new listener. A portion of each column will be dedicated to the sometimes complicated business of beginners successfully finding those great listens.

Start your listening experience with the best and choose narrators who others highly recommend. Reading through the use of  your ears will be a bit of a challenge in the beginning so you don’t want to have to deal with narrators who don’t differentiate characters or who clearly don’t understand romance.

I’m very picky about the books I listen to. I choose not only authors who deliver a good story but I require a narrator with the talent to take that good story and turn it into pure entertainment, lifting it to a higher level than the mere reading of the print book allows. I’ve always appreciated that voice in my head (I know – I now realize that not everyone hears that voice playing in their head when reading) and I considered it infallible for years. But now that I have listened to hundreds of audiobooks, I’m familiar with dozens of narrators who I trust to understand the romance genre and who can take a really good book and make it even better – so much more than that voice in my head ever could have perceived.

Who are those narrators you ask? I can’t begin to list them all but here are a few (in no particular order) capable of transforming the written word into that all out entertainment while staying completely true to the author’s words: Continue reading

Posted in audio books, Book news, Lea Hensley | 27 Comments

Heather’s Best of 2014 List

When I began this endeavor, I really was not sure I would have enough books for a top reads post for 2014. I think I read so many mediocre books that I lost sight of how many excellent reading experiences I had. As I looked over my Goodreads shelf, I realized that I had several contenders for favorites, which, of course, made me want to go reread them immediately.  Here are a few that topped my list:

Play by Kylie Scott – I enjoyed Ms. Scott’s debut last year with Lick, though I wasn’t completely enamored by it. I liked the character of Mal though, and was intrigued enough to want to read his story. Any lady who could bring Mal to heel would be okay in my book. I’m glad I gave it a shot as I found Play to be delightful and great fun, much less emo and serious than Lick. You can find my review here.

Night Broken by Patricia Briggs – This Mercy Thompson series installment could possibly be my favorite so far. Adam’s ex-wife Christy has reappeared and opened up a huge can of worms, leading trouble straight to Mercy and Adam’s door. Not only does she cause problems by getting mixed up with a creepy stalker, she also causes more of a rift between Mercy and the Pack. It was nice to see the villain be not only the standard supernatural baddie, but a flesh and blood woman as well. I loved how so many elements from prior books were woven throughout – the walking stick, Coyote, a little crossover with Alpha and Omega. It all came together beautifully and I’m looking forward to the next book.

It Happened One Wedding by Julie James – Books by Julie James just work for me, but this one was exceptional (review here.) The plot, the characters, the humor all blended to create a superb reading experience. I related to Sidney’s hilarious online dating experiences and enjoyed the extreme friction between her and Vaughn upon their initial meeting. Of course that friction leads to plenty of sparks. This pair had chemistry to burn and I loved every word.

Season of Storms by Susanna Kearsley – I am an unapologetic, squeeing Susanna Kearsley fangirl, hence my opinion may be slightly biased. But this reprint of a previously released title (review of original release here) struck all the right notes with me. I adored the Italian villa setting, the theatre aspect, the depth of characterization, and the mystery of what happened there in the 1920s. This book was different, robust, and made me gasp aloud with wonder, love, and dismay in varying turns.

Off the Edge by Carolyn Crane – I’m including this in my Best of 2014 list as it was published the last week of December 2013 and we typically consider those January releases (review here.) The author has crafted a true romantic suspense novel, striking the right balance between romance and suspense/action. Thailand, creepy bad guys, a smoky-voiced heroine, and a nerdy-cool hero equal utter delight for me. This is film noir for your mind.

Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare – This book was a romp through a rundown castle with a blind, scarred hero and a plucky heroine determined to do what it takes to survive (review here.) They match wits, each trying to keep a step ahead of the other. I howled with laughter more than once during this little gem.

DBDarling Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt – I’m a relative newcomer to the Maiden Lane series, but I’ve devoured each book and wanted more more more. Darling Beast is no exception (audiobook review here.) This is a rare case in which I loved each of the main characters as much as the other. Lily is a strong, witty, resourceful heroine and the perfect foil for Apollo.

Magic Breaks by Ilona Andrews – I’m a fangirl of the Kate Daniels series and hotly anticipate each new book with a mix of trepidation and delight. Because how can the series keep getting better and better? I don’t know, but it does. Magic Breaks delivered on my (admittedly high) expectations and pulled the rug out from under me several times. Humor, grit, emotion – it’s all here.

Never Been Kissed by Molly O’Keefe – This book was pitch perfect for me. I already had designs on Brody Baxter from the previous Boys of Bishop novel, Wild Child, so I was eager to get my paws on his story. It did not disappoint, providing me with complex characters to love and strong emotion (review here.) Finding love while negotiating the sometimes rocky waters of family bonds is a theme that resonates with me. Here it is done beautifully.

As mentioned in our previous favorites of 2014 column, my favorite book of the year was Into the Shadows by Carolyn Crane. This book left me breathless in all the right ways. The action, the villains, the tough as nails heroine who loves fiercely, and hero Thorne were an exhilarating combination. Seriously, go glom the Associates series.

For more fun, check out my honorable mentions. The Bastard by Inez Kelley (review here,) High Seduction by Vivian Arend (review here,) and Bound by Night by Larissa Ione (review here) all received B+ grades from me.

Do you see any of your favorites from 2014 in the mix? And it is definitely a mix. Are your reading tastes as eclectic as mine? Did anything catch your eye that you would like to add to your TBR pile? I’d love to hear from you in the comments! May we all have another great reading year in 2015. Cheers!


Posted in Best of List, Heather AAR | Tagged | 14 Comments

The Ideal Romantic Hero

Jaime-Lannister-jaime-lannister-29020283-458-533Every once in a while I will fall in love with a hero. Kit from Mary Balogh’s A Summer to Remember comes to mind. I loved his laughing eyes. I loved his sunny nature. As I typed this half a dozen scenes from the book came to my mind and I found myself with a smile on my face. I love Kit, it’s that simple. I also love Francis from Balogh’s The Famous Heroine. It’s his sense of humor which drew me, his sense of chivalry, his amazingly cheerful personality. Francis is a happy person and I just can’t imagine anyone being miserable around him.

Those are romance heroes. Sometimes I will also fall in love with a hero in a book that is most definitely not a romance. Will Laurence from Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon springs to mind. There is no romance in this novel but there is plenty to love about Will. He’s honorable and loyal and kind. He may not have much of a sense of humor but he has an outstanding sense of duty. Yes, by the time I had closed the pages of that book I had lost a piece of my heart to Will.

I also love another hero from a dragon centric novel – Jamie Lanister from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. However, where Will, Kit and Francis are all my ideas of a complete dreamboat, the type of man I am absolutely attracted to between the pages of a book (or in film or TV) as a romantic hero, Jamie definitely is not. Jamie is a terrific character – complex, riveting, growing and changing as the many hundreds of pages unfold – but I will not lose my heart to him romantically. His demons are too much for me, his depths too deep. I love what he brings to the book but I sure don’t fantasize of traveling through time and universes to meet him. In fact, the thought of it kind of scares me. With Jamie, you’ll never know how that encounter could end up.

There is another character in that saga about whom I am about to take a highly controversial stance. Ned Stark to me is no dreamboat. He’s no Jamie whom I love but not that way. He’s a douchebag. When we first meet dear Ned he’s about to chop the head off a man who was running from the Wall in fear for his life. Ned shows no mercy – the law is the law blah blah blah. He ignores what the man says – which by the way was actually pretty darn important. He could have redeemed himself after that moment but he doesn’t. And that is due in large part to his treatment of the Jon and Caitlin situation. Jon is, to all the people in Winterfell, Ned’s bastard son. Caitlin, Ned’s wife, hates Jon.

She makes his life very difficult. She is openly hostile. Ned never really deals with the issue – and he is sitting on some information that could make the whole thing disappear, which is hinted at very clearly in book one. But even if he hadn’t had that intel, he still should have intervened. Seeing a child emotionally abused when you are that child’s parent? Unforgivable to me.

The above is not an analysis of Ned as a character – it’s an analysis of Ned as a romantic hero. Ned as a character is – complicated. I have complex feelings for him and his role in the world of Ice and Fire. But as a romantic hero he’s not that complicated – he’s completely lacking. I couldn’t fall for him. At all. He has too many character traits that are just a complete turn off, too many actions highlight those traits throughout the book.

One of the great things about fiction is that it invokes these visceral reactions. Sure, a great novel can be thought provoking but when you are talking romance you are talking the heart. These instinctive heartfelt reactions toward heroes or heroines show that the author has done at least one thing right – they have created a character we are responding to. Especially in romance where we are deciding quite simply whether or not the character works for us in the role of romantic hero or heroine.

I’ve been thinking about what makes a hero work for me romantically the last few months as we have done the Dreamboat or Douchebag columns. I know his treatment of the heroine is paramount. I can accept the questionable actions of a hero like Jamie from Outlander if the character strikes me as thinking of his heroine with love and kindness. Jamie does. He risks himself to save Claire. He listens to her. He talks to her. Their partnership may not always be an equal one but there is a partnership and it improves with time. Jamie works for me as a romantic hero because on top of being an honorable, decent human being he’s a good lover, not just physically but emotionally.

Something else that I love in a hero is the accepting of the heroine for who she is. Jamie works darn hard at accommodating who Claire is. She is more outspoken than the women of his time, she is different in many other ways too. He doesn’t try to make her “grow up” or whatever other excuse a hero dreams up for making his heroine change. He does try to help her fit in better with his community for both their sakes but I didn’t see that as him trying to change the core of who she is. I’ve never been able to enjoy Balogh’s The Plumed Bonnet for that reason. For all the hero’s protestation that he doesn’t want to change the heroine he does nothing but try to change her. That’s not love in my book –it’s Stepford Wifing a convenient body.

Beyond his treatment of the heroine I fall for a hero who is kind to kids and the elderly (even if he is shy or awkward about it), a man who has a good sense of duty and integrity, someone who at their core is what I consider a decent human being. He can have flaws – Luke from Elizabeth Camden’s Beyond All Dreams is arrogant, overbearing and has a nasty temper but I love him anyway. He respects his heroine, he loves her, he accepts who she is. And who she is is someone who combats his arrogance with gentle wit, refuses to yield to his bossiness and who demands he get that temper under control. He’ll always try to get the upper hand, there will still be times when he stomps off in a rage, and he may on occasion try to act superior; they’ve worked it all out. I can love him because I see him in a great relationship with his heroine, I see him have all the traits I admire and like with a real person I can be reasonable about the rest. Perfect characters are boring anyway.

Now I am going to put the question to AAR staffers – what makes you react to a hero not intellectually but emotionally? What traits make up your romantic hero? What traits tend to be deal breakers?

Dabney: My answer for the hero is the same as mine for the heroine. He needs to deserve his happy ending.

Melanie: I’ve been sitting here thinking about it, and (alongside Dabney’s “needs to deserve his happy ending”) I think that whatever his faults may be, he must be ultimately redeemable. And not redeemable by “the love of a good woman” or such rot, but has to work to redeem himself. Some of my favorite heroes are dark and damaged, but work to move themselves past their history, and not solely because of their current/future/potential love interest. There’s something about what is basically a self-made man (not about money, but about themselves) that is incredibly appealing. In a romance novel, that type of hero will put that same effort into their relationship with the heroine. I’m a little in love with him already just thinking about it.

Lee: I like heroes who have a softer side and a good sense of humor and are willing to really listen to what others have to say, especially what the heroine wants to contribute to the conversation. Deal breakers are smokers/drinkers/guys who sleep around (especially in historicals though I know they probably did that in real life).

Mary: A good hero for me is one who listens; one who sees beyond the superficial and, if not at first, eventually learns to see their heroine (in the case of a heterosexual couple) as their equal. An ability to compromise is also an essential quality. No one wants a doormat be they male or female, so as in real life, people who are different have to be able to work out those differences in order to live in some kind of harmony. A good hero also shows how they love the heroine and doesn’t just say the words. They certainly do not have to be perfect. Perfect characters are pretty boring in my opinion. But if they are deeply flawed, there needs to be believable growth and redemption. I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was about 11-12 years old. For the first half of the book, I HATED DARCY! I never would have guessed at that point he would become one of the most iconic heroes of all time. What turned the corner for Darcy was his becoming self-aware. So, I want a hero who can think. They do not have to be educated, but for their character to resonate with me, they need to be intelligent. Being nice to children and animals helps too. :0)

Readers, what are your thoughts? What characteristics does a hero need to have for you to deem him swoon-worthy?

Maggie AAR



Posted in Characters, Dabney AAR, Defining Romance, Heroes, Lee AAR, Maggie AAR, Mary AAR, Melanie AAR | 15 Comments