The Best of 2015: Maggie’s List

Last year I defined a DIK as “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.” That definition is true for this year as well.

I read 168 books last year, 20 of which were DIKs. This year I’ve read approximately 140 books, 26 of which are DIKs.  Of those 26, 12 were romances that received a grade of B+ or above. Obviously, I had to cut two to make a top ten list.  I didn’t choose Beyond Limits by Laura Griffin as my romantic suspense choice not because I didn’t love it but because I felt the romance was stronger in Circumstantial Evidence. Promise to Keep by Elizabeth Byler Younts suffered from the same problem; Of the two inspirational romances on my list, Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist had the stronger romance.

Here are all the romances that did make the list:

1.Radiance by Grace Draven: This is my top book of the year. Ildiko is the niece of the Gauri king, a beautiful young woman who knows she is fated to be a marriage pawn. Brishen is the second son of the Kai king, with six nephews between him and the throne. He has always known his family would use his marriage to secure an alliance. When the Gauri and Kai make a trade agreement, Brishen and Ildiko serve as the symbols of that alliance. In most romance novels this would mean pages and pages of the two squabbling against their fate and each other. In this gem of a tale we see how a marriage of convenience between two intelligent, thoughtful people can turn into a stupendous love match. Easily my favorite romance of the year because of the two incredible leads and the sweet, sexy love story.

2.Uprooted by Naomi Novik: Agnieszka knows her best friend will be chosen as the magician’s girl and it makes her burn with a slow anger. She doesn’t want her friend to be locked in a tower with a strange man who will change her so completely the girl will never want to live in her small village again. But when the wizard comes from his tower it is not her friend he picks but her.

Turns out, she has magic. But not a hard studied magic like him but a simple magic that is like the woods she grew up in, organic and powerful and living. And it’s a good thing too. Because something dark, angry and powerful lives in the woods. Something that is claiming the small villages along its borders. Something that aims to take them all over. And it is only by working with the strange and powerful Sarkan that Agnieska can have any hope of defeating it. Filled with magic and just a touch of romance, this is a wonderful story for fans of fairy tale style fantasy.

3.Dark Horse by Michelle Diener: This is absolutely a must read for anyone who loves science fiction romance. Rose is a prisoner aboard a Tecran “exploration” vessel. She has suffered countless indignities at their hands but that has not crushed her boundless spirit. When Rose meets the human like Grih she jumps at the chance to form an uneasy alliance with them. They are her best chance of survival but Rose knows things might not work out in this relationship. For Rose is keeping a very large secret from the handsome Captain Dav Jallan. A secret that might get them both killed. A thoughtful romance with two truly memorable leads.

4.First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen: Ms. Allen returns to the world of her first novel, Garden Spells, to deliver a sweet story of young love and solid marriages. Sisters Claire and Sydney Waverly found their perfect partners and are living mostly happily ever after, but they worry over the small issues within their romances. Meanwhile, young Bay knows just who she is meant to marry but it seems like he hasn’t received the same memo. As the magic swirls around the enchanted apple tree in the backyard of the Waverly house all three ladies will learn that love takes its time but it is always worth waiting for.

5.The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James: Ellie Winters is a psychic in 1925 London. Her specialty is finding lost objects, never lost people. When the brother of an old friend comes to her saying that the friend’s last message before death was a note asking Ellie to find her, she discovers herself doing what she swore never to do – searching for the dead. She is joined on her journey by James Hawley, a man with whom she has a not so pleasant past. As the two embark on their quest they learn that everyone has secrets – and some of them are worth killing for. A subtle yet intense romance and an atmospheric mystery made this one of the best gothics I’ve picked up in ages.

6.The Sound of Glass by Karen White: I’m a sucker for a novel that combines past and present to deliver a tale that will blow your socks off and this is definitely that kind of story. Three generations of Heyward women have served as punching bags for angry Heyward men. Each has felt only relief when her husband dies. Meritt is no exception. When she inherits her grandmother-in-laws home (a person she did not know existed) she sees it as an opportunity to make a fresh start in a new town. She hadn’t expected members of her own family to be camped on the door. And she sure hadn’t expected Gibbes Heyward, the brother-in-law she never knew of – and very likely, her best shot at true love. A sweet romance and fascinating family mystery make this one of the most powerful and surprising books I read in 2015.

7.Rise by Karina Bliss: This is not my typical style of book. I’m not big on rock star romances or this particular kind of bad boy hero. This novel overcame my reservations and delivered a DIK read. Zander Freedman is broke. He needs to tour to make money. Problem? His vocal chords are giving out and he has had to reform his band after his brother (and the other members) quit. Into this time of quiet desperation steps Elizabeth Winston a biographer whose typical subjects are dead. She doesn’t work with the living but Zander wants her to write his story. Neither of them realizes she will eventually have a starring role in the tale. This is a poignant story about love in the limelight. The circumstances may seem unreal but the author manages to infuse genuine emotion into a tinsel town tale.

8.Circumstantial Evidence by Lisa Clark O’Neil: Camellia Abernathy is having something of a rough time. Her husband has just died and it turns out he was a lying cheat. She’s broke and has a young son in desperate need of a hero. In steps Will Hawbarker. Will hadn’t really noticed Camellia as a possible love interest when the two went to high school together but he’s noticing now. The grownup Cam might not be a drop dead beauty but she has a sweetness and loveliness that make her into everything a man could want. When dire circumstances throw the two together in the middle of a dangerous investigation, Will has to use all his powers as sheriff to keep the two new people in his life safe. And it doesn’t seem likely he will be able to succeed. No one does police procedural romantic suspense like Ms. O’Neil. This book is a just right blend of suspense and romance.

9.Dead Heat by Patricia Briggs: Fans of Briggs’s Alpha and Omega series will not be disappointed in this fourth book of the series. The story starts with a serious conversation. Anna wants children. She knows Charles does as well. But for werewolves, childbirth is a great challenge and they will have to be creative to overcome the many obstacles they face.

In an effort to lighten the mood – and to ensure he gets Anna the best birthday gift possible – Charles plans a rare personal vacation to Arizona. It gives Charles a chance to reunite with an old friend and Anna a chance to purchase a new horse. But trouble is waiting for them in this seemingly idyllic location; A Fae of incredible power and cruelty is hunting the children of this area. And it will not tolerate any interference to its plan. Dead Heat kept me glued to my seat and eagerly turning the pages. It has that rare but wonderful combination of action packed adventure, intriguing mystery and wonderful relationship building that a great book should have. I love how Briggs is able to move the story line of the whole series forward while still delivering a tale that stands completely on its own.

10.Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist: Ms. Gist stirred the Inspirational Romance market pot when she published this novel, which some reviewers went so far as to call “porn”. It’s not, in fact, it’s nowhere near porn. This is a story about an independent young woman learning all about what real life is like. Flossie Jayne is an aspiring painter who finds herself in need of money to pay for art school. She does the unthinkable for a middle class girl of her time and accepts a job!  She works as a Tiffany Girl, one of the artists who contributed to the mosaic chapel made entirely of stained glass which Louis Tiffany unveiled at the 1893 World Fair. Flossie learns some hard lessons on her way to love, about friendship, family, talent and how the world works. She teaches hero Reeve Wilder the most important lesson of all – life is nothing but existence till you have the right people in it.

These are my top ten picks. They include one inspirational romance, a romantic suspense, three paranormals, one contemporary romance, one woman’s fiction with strong romantic elements, two fantasy romances and one science fiction romance. A pretty varied mix overall. How about you? How varied was your 2015 reading? Are you happy with the mix or do you wish you had read more from other subgenres? Which ones?

AAR’s Maggie


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Writing Communities: A Guest Post and a Giveaway from Jennifer Lohmann

One of the things I like in a good contemporary romance is how real the characters feel. In a contemporary, the setting is familiar and the technology and manners and culture are all familiar, so I can sink into the characters and the story. Everything about the book feels like it could be happening down the street from me. It’s this quality that pulled me into Harlequin Superromances to begin with and it’s something I strive for in my novels.

The trick is to make a setting feel like it could be happening next door to me and next door to you and next door to a reader halfway around the world while still making the book feel like it’s set in a real place, rather than a generic Every Town. The realness of the setting helps the characters shine. A setting that feels fake can make the characters feel fake, while real, fully fleshed out characters interact with a real, fully fleshed out world.

One of the ways I do it is to set my novels in places I know intimately. I’ve set three novels in Chicago (Reservations for Two, The First Move, and A Promise for the Baby) and two novels in Durham, North Carolina (Weekends in Carolina and A Southern Promise). I lived in Chicago for four years and currently live in Durham, so the settings shine.

And so the characters shine.

But writing books set in my hometown has done so much more for me than make my books better. Creating a meaningful setting in books means creating the feeling of community, and the research I’ve done for my books, especially my Durham-set novels, has brought that community from the page into my life.

Setting a book in your hometown is convenient. I researched farming for Weekends in Carolina with Elise from Elysian Fields Farm, the source of my local farm share for the past nine years. When I needed to research the police department for A Southern Promise, finding the right person to contact was as easy as seeing a name on my neighborhood listserv.

However, calling local research convenient glosses over the most wonderful part of setting books in my hometown. The people I call or email for research questions are sometimes people I see at the grocery store. The homicide investigator who helped me with A Southern Promise was one of the officers handling security during the five mile race I ran in October. The woman who works for American Underground (the business incubator that helped me with research, also for A Southern Promise) frequents the same coffee shop I do. I’ve become friends with the woman who owns the restaurant where Howie and Julieanne have lunch.

Even better, people love to see aspects of themselves in the books they read. After I gave a copy of Weekends in Carolina to the grocery store down the street from me, it was fun to joke with the folks who work there about who was on the page saying, “Hey, sug,” as Max and Trey walked in the door. When I speak at book clubs or talk with library patrons and they find out that I write and that I set my books in Durham, they often ask me if my next book has room for a nice widow/retired computer programmer/mechanic/etc. Not only is it a piece of them walking around a novel, but it’s a piece of them walking around a novel set where they live.

Each of these interactions, from long conversations about police procedure to short conversations about having a widow in my next book build and strengthen my personal community. These conversations create connections for me, and the strength of these connections bleeds into my books. The connections tie an entire city to my book, making it something richer than anything I could write alone.

The backing and support I get from my community helps create a richness I hope readers can feel as they turn the pages.

Jennifer is giving away a paperback copy of A Southern Promise to a lucky U.S. reader. Make a comment below to be entered in a drawing!

Jennifer Lohmann is a Rocky Mountain girl at heart, having grown up in southern Idaho and Salt Lake City. When she’s not writing or working as a public librarian, she wrangles two cats and a flock of backyard chickens. (The dog is better behaved.) She currently lives in Durham, North Carolina, where her favorite cup of coffee is from Old Havana.

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A Guest Post and a Giveaway from Rose Lerner

[trigger warning: discussion of sexual harassment/assault] 

Happy new year, all!

Being a servant is not a great job. I knew that when I set out to research Listen to the Moon (my new Regency romance about an impassive valet and a snarky maid who marry to get a plum job), and most of what I read just made it seem worse and worse.

Part of why Longbourn (Jo Baker’s Pride and Prejudice retelling from the servants’ point of view) didn’t quite work for me (I DNF’ed a few chapters in) was the constant detailing of servants’ misery. Their hands are dry! They work long hours! They have to empty chamber pots! It felt like there wasn’t anything else in their brains or lives. Of course it’s true that servants’ hands are dry and they work long hours and have to empty chamber pots—but. I don’t know. People with crappy jobs still tell jokes and have emotional lives? Being poor really, really sucks but it doesn’t mean it’s all you think about and that you are 100% miserable 24/7? People are not defined solely by their tragedies?

It’s complicated, but I just feel like, there is a lot of that story out there. The Dickensian “those poor wretched people!” story. I would rather read and write a different kind of story, where bad stuff happens and also people live and laugh and gossip and have work drama and love each other and are sometimes deliriously happy.

That’s why I’m a romance writer, I guess.

So since I didn’t do it in my book, this is my place to really get in there and wallow in what a truly crappy job being a servant was.

I remember as a little kid asking my mom about women’s rights after watching Mary Poppins. She told me that back when many married women didn’t work or have their own bank accounts, they were dependent on their husbands. So you had to hope that your husband was nice, because if he was it could be okay, but if he was mean, there wasn’t a lot you could do about it.

Being a servant was a lot like that. If you had a nice boss, it could be okay. If you didn’t, you were completely screwed. Highlights:

1. The hours. Servants were expected to work from early in the morning to late at night. There was no part of the day that was designated as free time or after work. If their boss needed something in the middle of the night, they’d be woken up.

If I had a nickel for every time I have read a complaint about maids reading novels when they should be working, I would be rich! But when CAN they read novels, then? They are working ALL THE TIME.

They were rarely allowed to have guests, even in the kitchen, so for many servants their only opportunity for a social life outside the home was on their time off, which was a half-day once a week at best and sometimes not even that. (Plus Sunday morning for church in some households.)

Many servants in this time period were maids-of-all-work, meaning they were the only servants a family had. I can’t imagine how lonely that must have been.

2. Employers felt entitled to dictate everything about their servants’ lives. Many female servants were not allowed to date (though of course making a rule is not always the same as being able to enforce it). And they were watched obsessively for any signs of a love life or, God forbid, pregnancy.

Some employers also didn’t even like servants leaving the house! For example, in 1821 John Skinner wrote that he “made it a rule…to state [to new servants] my dislike of them going into the village,” though he did say he would allow them to “go home to their friends, or occasionally see them here”.

Bridget Hill writes in Servants: English Domestics in the Eighteenth Century (a really great resource) that “So great was the desire of some masters to keep their servants at home that they locked them in when they went out. So when Mr. Goodwin, the minister at Tankersley, went to church, he locked his maid and two children in the house.”

Remember that Regency locks usually worked differently than modern ones: they were key-and-keyhole locks, where you could lock them, put the key in your pocket, and walk away, and the door would be locked from both sides. No fire codes here!

3. Which leads to…no privacy. Outside of country estates with dedicated servants’ quarters or wings (and I don’t think they were entirely universal at country houses, even, in this time period), servants could not count on having a bed, let alone a room to themselves. They might sleep in closets, on landings, or even on the kitchen floor. Their rooms didn’t always have doors. And as Hill notes, “wherever their quarters were, something that was common to them all was that they could rarely be locked.” If there was a key, housekeepers or employers kept it, not the servants themselves.

4. The above quote from Hill is from a chapter titled “The Sexual Vulnerability and Sexuality of Female Domestic Servants.” I feel like I don’t even really need to say more. Servants who were harassed or assaulted had very little recourse and were likely to find themselves out of a job if they spoke up. They were also almost certain to find themselves out of a job if they got pregnant.

(Though this problem affected female servants disproportionately, of course it wasn’t limited to them.)

Caption: “Register Office for the Hiring of Servants,” Thomas Rowlandson, c.1800-05. Image Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Source link:

Caption: “Register Office for the Hiring of Servants,” Thomas Rowlandson, c.1800-05. Image Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Source link:

5. Have I mentioned that employers really, really did not want their servants to get pregnant? They often couched this in terms of virtue, respectability, morality, etc. but the truth is that employers also did not want their servants to get married, because either way the pregnancy was inconvenient for them. Hill writes:

“Marriages between fellow servants were fraught with difficulties. On the whole few masters seem to have employed married couples as servants. If two servants within the same household wanted to marry custom dictated they ask for the permission of their master—and such permission could be withheld—or leave the household…Employers were apprehensive that a married couple, particularly if they had children, would be as much concerned with their own family as their master’s. But if marriage between two servants was to have any chance of success the married couple needed to be employed in one household.”

6. You did not even always get paid! Hill writes that “Wages were frequently not paid on time. Indeed, in order that servants could pay ‘for anything missing’ it was recommended (by John Trusler in The London Advisor and Guide, 1790) that employers ‘keep part of their wages in hand’, and that ‘they should always be paid one half year under another, reserving half-a-year in hand.’” Trusler points out that servants could not legally be compelled to pay for broken items ‘unless it was so agreed on the hiring,’ but the fact is that many employers applied wage penalties (over and above lost time) for all kinds of infractions: breaking things, leaving before the agreed-on date, going home for the holidays, not going to church, badly done work, neglect, getting drunk, etc.

A servant whose claim for unpaid wages was under £10 could have their case heard by a magistrate very cheaply, but who knows how many servants were aware of this right or dared take advantage of it? A servant who was owed more presumably had to sue if they wanted to collect.

7. This will probably surprise no one, but women servants were paid far below men servants. Boswell wrote in 1791:

“I put a question to him [Dr. Johnson] upon a fact in common life, which he could not answer, nor have I found any one else who could. What is the reason that women servants, though obliged to be at the expense of purchasing their own clothes, have much lower wages than men servants, to whom a great proportion of that article is furnished, and when in fact our female house servants work much harder than the male?”

Good question, Mr. Boswell!

(Note: with the exception of footmen, etc. who wore livery, there were no uniforms for servants in this period. Sometimes female servants were provided with clothes or the fabric to make them, but it was less a matter of custom and more one of the employer’s discretion.)

caption: "Progress of the Toilet - THE STAYS," James Gillray, c. 1818. Image credit: The British Library.

caption: “Progress of the Toilet – THE STAYS,” James Gillray, c. 1818. Image credit: The British Library.

For many female domestic servants, the goal was for it to be a “life-cycle job”, i.e. something she did in her teens and early twenties and then graduated out of, hopefully through marriage. But finding a life partner is never a guarantee, and it was especially difficult for a servant to 1) meet someone and 2) save for a dowry. So this didn’t always pan out—which sucked because domestic work was very physically demanding, and a woman’s wages might actually decrease as she aged, yet she could rarely afford to retire.

For workers in a great house like the ones owned by many Regency romance characters, service made more sense as a lifelong career: there were some opportunities for advancement (ladies’ maid, cook, housekeeper, upper housemaid, etc.) and it must have made the work much more tolerable long-term to have other servants to hang out with and to not have your employer breathing down your neck all the time.

On the other hand, specialized servants in a large house who did want to marry might find themselves at a disadvantage. Hill writes:

“There is a late eighteenth-century ‘penny-history’ in which Ned advises his friend, Harry, against marrying a chambermaid ‘for they bring nothing with them but a few old cloaths [sic] of their mistresses, and for housekeeping, few of them know anything of it; for they can hardly make a pudding or a pye, neither can they spin, nor knit, nor wash, except it be a few laces to make themselves fine withal.’”

6. The Regency was one of the last stages in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I’m not trying to toot feudalism’s horn here. But every crappy economic system is unique, and one aspect of feudalism was that in it, the model of “service” was (at least theoretically) understood to be one of mutual rights and responsibilities. Noblesse oblige and all that. The capitalist model, of course, is one of contractual wage labor.

To illustrate how drastically things shifted: in the eighteenth century, “family” often still simply meant “household” and included apprentices, servants, etc. George Washington’s aides-de-camp, for example, were widely referred to as his “family,” because they traveled with him and were usually accommodated in the same house. As the Victorian era neared, the new ideals of hearth and home and “private life” meant that “family” began to refer only to those related by blood.

For servants who lived with their employers, this transition had numerous disadvantages, often with fewer corresponding gains in independence than, say, a factory worker. Employers resented servants because their presence inherently compromised precious privacy (one reason, in tandem with technological advances like bell-pulls that could call servants from another part of the house, for the increase in designated servants’ quarters).

Class barriers hardened, and as the perceived gulf between employer and employee widened, intimacy between servants and employers came to be seen as “dangerous”, especially to impressionable children.

And even as their own loyalty to servants shrank (with less perceived obligation to provide for sick or old servants, for example), employers bitterly resented the loss of servants’ loyalty and gratitude. As Hill says, “[T]heir concern about servants spying on them and gossiping became almost paranoid.

“The servant problem” is obsessively discussed in eighteenth century and frankly it makes me gag every time. Let me tell you, I had a really hard time finding images for this post that weren’t either A) condescending caricature/satire, B) racist, C) porn, or D) all of the above.

You know what, rich Regency people? If you don’t like it, do your own damn laundry!

7. And on top of all that which is specific to servants, there are still all the general problems of non-unionized labor, and that in a time before labor laws of any kind: no pension, no health insurance, no job security, no OSHA, no limit on working hours, etc., etc.!

Again, happy new year! And, if you’d like to be entered in a drawing for an eBook of Listen to the Moon, just leave a comment below.

P.S. When a new book comes out, I always post a free short story about the characters in my last book, based on reader requests. For Listen to the Moon, I wrote about my con artist hero from True Pretenses and his brother running a scam on Aaron Burr, who just happened to be in the same part of England on Christmas 1808…. To read it, visit my page here.


Rose Lerner discovered Georgette Heyer when she was thirteen, and wrote her first historical romance a few years later. Her writing has improved since then, but her fascination with all things Regency hasn’t changed. She lives in Seattle with her best friend. Listen to the Moon is the third book in her Lively St. Lemeston series. The first two books, Sweet Disorder and True Pretenses are currently on sale at Amazon.

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AAR Picks the Best of 2015

Each year, we ask the AAR staff to pick the best romances published this year. This year, we’ve included picks from some of our favorite guest reviewers as well.

Here are the AAR picks for 2015:

Mary: I pick Carla Kelly’s Doing No Harm. (My DIK review is here.) Doing No Harm has all of the elements of a romance that will stand the test of time.  Great characters, a great story about a time in history that doesn’t get the attention it deserves (Highland Clearances), and a love that develops from genuine friendship.  It tells us that heroes/heroines can be found in unlikely places and although none of us can save the world, we can all do our part.  The writing is lovely and has poignancy that brings both sad and happy tears.  

BJ Jansen: My book of the year is a collection of stories called Liberty and Other Stories by Alexis Hall. It was released on the 4th of January and was not bettered in 2015. In Liberty and Other Stories, the author revisits the steampunk world–with its aetherships and romantic adventurers–we met in his novel, Prosperity. What reader would not lament, swoon, gasp, sigh and cheer over stories regarding a dashing skycaptain, pirates, rogue scientists, adventurers and spies. I highly recommend reading Prosperity first as these stories are prequels, sequels and parallels to that book. Just the titles here give me a thrill: Shackles, Squamous With a Chance of Rain, From the Journal of Mrs. Miranda Lovelace, Cloudy Climes and Starless Skies and Liberty. This collection is a rare joy.

Sara ElliotIt’s The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne. (Our review is here.) I loved the darker tone to the story and felt the couple had one of the best romances I’ve ever read.  It had an Old-School feel to it with its Alpha hero and tough but sweet heroine.  To me, it was similar to Lord of Scoundrels or Dreaming Of You, both highly praised titles.

CazA Seditious Affair by KJ Charles is the second book in her new Society of Gentlemen series, and is an utterly superb, character-driven romance set against a richly detailed historical background.  (My DIK review is here.) The two central characters are, at first glance, a disastrous mis-match; a dyed-in-the-wool Tory who is a senior Home Office official and a lowly bookseller who writes and publishes anti-government polemics, but the relationship between them is beautifully romantic and  gorgeously written.  The story is set in England in 1819/20, a time of great political unrest when the plight of the poor was ignored by the upper echelons, leading to mass discontent and a growing determination by a brave few to speak out against such injustice.  KJ Charles combines both the political and romantic elements of her story with consummate skill – all the characters are fully-rounded, the two principals are especially memorable and they way they arrive at their hard-won HEA is both poignant and believable.

Caroline RussomannoI’ll take Sherry Thomas’s The Immortal Heights(Our DIK review is here.). I don’t even care that we already put it in two gift guide columns. It’s that good. The final installment of the Elemental Trilogy (which starts with The Burning Sky and continues with The Perilous Sea), The Immortal Heights picks up with the hero Titus and the heroine Iolanthe in mortal peril as they alternately flee and chase the evil Bane across the mage world and late 1800s Europe and North Africa. So many trilogies start out powerfully and fail to stick the landing. That most definitely does not happen here. Technically excellent writing, tight and tricky plotting, a well-developed and internally consistent magical world, a diverse cast, a great leading couple, the satisfying and worthy finale to three books of adventure, love, and danger… and footnotes! What more could you want? 

Lynn SpencerMy book of the year is The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James. (Our DIK review is here.) Tales of mediums and seance don’t usually do it for me, but this one had appealing characters, a spooky atmosphere, and a compelling mystery. I couldn’t put it down.

LinnieGaylThis was a close one for me, but I’m going for Rise by Karina Bliss as my best romance of 2015. (A close second would be Rock Hard by Nalini Singh). I raved about Rise in a Pandora’s box with Dabney and in a DIK review. I never thought Ms. Bliss could turn Zander into a hero; I hated him in her earlier What the Librarian Did. But she succeeded, and made me truly care about him and the heroine. I can hardly wait for the next installment by Ms. Bliss. And what is it about these New Zealand and Australian authors? Suddenly my favorites are Karina Bliss, Nalini Singh (for her contemporaries), and Sarah Mayberry.

Anne Marble: My pick is Redemption Road by Katie Ashley. It’s a motorcycle club romance, but unlike many of these groups, the group is trying to go legit. There are gritty elements, of course (both the hero and heroine are abuse survivors), but the hero is actually… nice! (In the case of motorcycle club romances, it might be a good sign if one of the few negative reviews on Amazon calls the hero “the biggest biker wussy.”)

Ulysses DietzMy favorite book of 2015: How to Be  Normal Person by TJ Klune. Klunatics everywhere had been awaiting with bated breath the release of this book, and it was surely worth the wait for us. In a world of male/male romance, Klune’s novel broached the rather dodgy topic of how one could possibly have an asexual romance between two men It is full of laugh-out-loud humor, oddball characters (in ADDITION to the two protagonists), and deep, heart-filling emotional truth. I have to say, TJ Klune really sells asexuality. Gustavo Tiberius is one of the cutest, most endearing socially dysfunctional people I’ve ever read; and Casey Richards is the most adorable, charming asexual hipster I’ve ever heard of. This book is not just a landmark in TJ Klune’s career as a beloved author; it’s a landmark in m/m romance. And about time.

Rike:I really enjoyed Only a Kiss by Mary Balogh. (Our review is here.) I’d been curious about Imogen and what happened to her for years, and I was greatly pleased by the book. Percy was a lovely departure from the rather haunted heroes of this series, and I liked how he and Imogen helped each other to find their lighter and more serious sides respectively.

AlexandraDark Horse by Michelle Diener would have to be my favorite 2015 read, although there are a lot of good ones to choose from. (Our DIK review is here.) Too often I think my “favorite romance of the year” is really my “favorite romance on my mind during December.” But while it’s true that I’m in the mood for Fantasy/Sci-Fi romance at the moment, what with Star Wars coming out and all, I can tell that Dark Horse is going to continue to stand as one of my favorite books. It just has everything–a complex plot, great characters, grand adventure….

Heather SI’m going with The Game Plan by Kristen Callihan as my favorite book of 2015. (My DIK review is here.) I loved this steamy tale of a quiet hulk of a man falling for his best friend’s sister-in-law. The course of true love never did run smooth though, and our protagonists have to overcome plenty of obstacles before they can be together. Their story is simultaneously fun, charming, and emotional.

Maggie: My top book of the year is Radiance by Grace Draven. (My DIK review is here.) Ildiko is the niece of the Gauri king, a beautiful young woman who knows she is fated to be a marriage pawn. Brishen is the second son of the Kai king, with six nephews between him and the throne. He has always known his family would use his marriage to secure an alliance. When the Gauri and Kai make a trade agreement, Brishen and Ildiko serve as the symbols of that alliance. In most romance novels this would mean pages and pages of the two squabbling against their fate and each other. In this gem of a tale we see how a marriage of convenience between two intelligent, thoughtful people can turn into a stupendous love match. Easily my favorite romance of the year because of its two incredible leads and the sweet, sexy love story.

Shannon:My top romance of 2015 has to be The Bourbon Kings by J.R. Ward. (Our review is here.) I was skeptical at first, just because this was a total departure for the author. No vampires, no angels, nothing paranormal at all. However, I was hooked into the story really quickly, and it was over way before I was ready for it to be.

Haley: A Court of Thorn and Roses by Sarah J. Maas–this may have been my favorite new book of 2015. It is YA, but seems to be more grown up that some other books in the genre. This is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, or perhaps East of the Sun West of the Moon, set in a world where humans live precariously alongside dangerous fae. The world that Maas has built is anything but Happily Ever After. Feyre’s family is on the brink of starvation and poor when she kills what she thinks is a wolf in the woods. That wolf was actually a fae in disguise, and as retribution, Feyre must go live with the High Lord of the Spring Court. The best reason to read this book is Tamlin, the High Lord. He is everything you want in a sexy leading man. This is perfect for those that love fairy tales or fantasy romance. I would save this one for older teens, as the sexuality is more frank (although not explicit) than some YA. I also think it is perfect reading for adult romance fans as well.

Lee: I choose The Legend of Lyon Redmond by Julie Anne Long. (Our DIK review is here.) Readers have been waiting patiently over the years to find out what actually happened to break up Lyon Redmond and Olivia Eversea.  There was a huge pressure on Ms. Long to wrap up her series.  And she did it very successfully in my opinion.  I’ve always enjoyed Ms. Long’s prose and humor and both were present in this lovely story.

liz blue: Favorites of anything is more a category than one thing for me. My top “book” for 2015 is really 3 separate books, but I’ll go with the one I’ve both re-read already and isn’t a sequel: Misfits by Garrett Leigh. Not only is this one of my few favorite reads of the year, it’s hands down the best menage book I’ve read. Each of the three men is a fully developed and sympathetic character. All are perfectly flawed and complement one another in the relationship. POV shifts happen in large segments of the book, and it’s wonderfully written for each man. The book is emotional and brilliant. The Other Side of Winter by GB Gordon and Life, Some Assembly Required by Kaje Harper round out my 2015 faves shelf. (My DIK review of the latter is here.)

Keira Soleore: For my top pick of 2015, I choose This Gun for Hire by Jo Goodman. (Our DIK review is here.) Calico is a bounty hunter. Quill’s a lawyer, cattle rancher, and federal marshal. They meet in a brothel. She threatens to shoot him. And out of such improbable details comes a tender love story. Calico has had a tough upbringing but she’s revels in it and is proud of the unconventionality. Quill’s had a traditional upbringing but has a problematic relationship with his religious family. And yet the two are drawn together emotionally when they’re brought together to play bodyguards to a daughter-father duo. I liked the suspense aspect of the story as well. It’s nuanced and despite small details dribbled here and there, the answer’s not obvious. The leads had disagreements, but there was no immature bickering. They settled their differences responsibly and respectfully. They are people I could like in real life.

Dabney: I’m going to cheat and pick a favorite romance novel and a favorite romance novella. Last year, my pick was Eloisa James’s Three Weeks with Lady X (Our DIK review is here.) I read Ms. James’ next entry into her Desperate Duchesses series, Four Nights with the Duke, at the beginning of this year. I enjoyed it. I read it again in May. I really enjoyed it. And, after deciding to read it again this month, I realized I loved it. (Our review is here.) The heroine, Mia, is one of the most successful popular novelist in her time and Ms. James, clearly having a blast, begins each chapter of Four Nights with a Duke with a draft of Mia’s latest work-in-progress. Xander couldn’t be less like Mia’s hero, the hilariously sensitive Frederic, but he’s fabulous and just what Mia really needs. This book is witty, sexy, and smart.

In last year’s best of 2014, Melanie and I both picked Larissa Brown’s Beautiful Wreck as one of our favorite books of the year. (Our DIK review is here.) This year, Ms. Brown produced a novella, Tress, that is like nothing I’ve ever read. (My DIK review is here.) Tress is a dark fairy tale with a heroine whose apprehension of reality isn’t reliable–think R.D. Laing. One night, across a field, she sees a woodsman and, in her mind, the years rush away. Their story, written with glorious precision, (Ms. Brown is a logophile’s dream) is magical.

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Jane Ashford: Five Reasons to Love My Latest Hero (and a Giveaway!)

  1. He cares about other people. He goes out of his way to help his brothers when they turn to him for aid with dilemmas big and small. Nathaniel likes making other people happy.
  2. He’s responsible and reliable. If he says he going to do something for you, he does it. He helps his father the duke manage their estates for the benefit of their many tenants as well as the family.
  3. None of this means he doesn’t like to have fun, however. He has a keen, though quiet, sense of humor. How else would he tolerate the pranks his brothers play? Such as removing all his clothes from his bedroom at his future in laws home on the eve of his wedding. And taking the bell rope, too, so he can’t summon his valet to rescue him.
  4. Not to be superficial, but he’s a hunk – just over six feet, built, with dark auburn hair and blue eyes. He dresses with elegance and turns heads wherever he goes. And he’s a viscount. And rich.
  5. When he falls in love, he gives his whole heart. He’s observed his parents’ glorious marriage all his life, and down deep he longs for the same. He has no reservations about embracing happiness when it makes an appearance.

If you need more reasons why to love Nathaniel Gresham, the hero of my new book Heir to the Duke, just check out this scene (one of my favorites) below! And I’m giving away three print copies to three lucky readers.* Just leave a comment below.

Nathaniel Gresham, Viscount Hightower, stirred in his sleep. His hands groped for bedclothes, found nothing. Sensing wrongness, his consciousness rose through layers of befuddlement and wisps of dreams. He opened his eyes to find a gaping maw of three-inch fangs inches from his throat.


Nathaniel threw up his arms to shield his face and twisted to the side. The convulsive movement brought him right to the edge of a large four-poster bed, and he scrambled to avoid falling three feet to the floor. He twisted in the opposite direction and struck out at the sharp, yellowed teeth. They did not snap shut on his forearm or lunge into his face once more. Indeed, they did not move at all, except sideways under his blow. There was no snarl or slaver, no spark of rage in the shiny eye behind the fangs. Nathaniel shoved them farther away and sat up.

He was stark naked, on a large bed stripped bare of linens, covered only by a moth-eaten gray wolf skin. The wretched thing’s head had been carefully placed on his chest, to ensure the rude awakening. His hips still rested under its hindquarters. Molting fur peppered the bed. The mere sight of the ancient pelt made his skin itch. Revolted, he pushed it all the way off and moved to the foot of the bed, struggling to get his bearings. This wasn’t his bedchamber. The blue-striped wallpaper was alien, the furnishings unfamiliar; the windows with their slant of early morning light were in the wrong place. Then he remembered. He was staying at the Earl of Moreley’s country house, because tomorrow—no, today—he was to marry the earl’s daughter at their local parish church.

Nathaniel glared at the wolf skin, then rubbed his hands over his face. This was what it meant to have five brothers—five younger brothers—on one’s wedding day. Or rather, on one’s wedding eve, a night they’d insisted upon marking with bowls of rack punch. Had it been three? Or had he lost count? No wonder they’d kept filling his glass, if they had this prank planned. Where the devil had they found a wolf skin in a strange house? And hadn’t he told his father, when Robert was born in his sixth year, that four sons were quite enough? Even for a duke, six sons were excessive. At this particular moment, Nathaniel thought that his parents might have been content with just one.

He rose, stretching stiff limbs and marveling that he had only a mild headache. Revenge on his brothers would have to wait for another day. Today, he was getting married. He was doing his duty to his name and his line, pledging himself to a woman who would be an admirable duchess when their turn came—may it be far in the future. The match was eminently suitable. All society acknowledged its rightness. And despite Violet’s irascible grandmother, the occasional bane of his existence, he could have no complaints.

Indeed, why had the word even occurred to him? No one had rushed him into marriage. He had enjoyed a plenitude of seasons in London and a number of agreeable flirtations and liaisons with delightful females. Though they had never spoken of it, he was aware that his parents had given him every opportunity to fall in love. But the passion that had overtaken them in their young days had not befallen him. He wasn’t sure why, but once he’d passed thirty he concluded it never would. He’d had more than enough time to observe that such a bond was rare in the circles of the haut ton.

Nathaniel stretched again, his bare limbs a bit chilly. This marriage was certainly not a penance. He liked Violet very much. They’d been acquainted for years. He did not know whether she’d had other offers, but he supposed that she too had waited for love to find her. They had that in common. They were also well suited by background, had similar tastes, and enjoyed the same even temperament. When he’d decided that the time for marriage had come, he’d simply known that she was the proper candidate. He expected their union to be gracious, harmonious, and ideal for the significant position they would someday be called upon to fulfill. And now it was time to stop wool- gathering, put on his dressing gown, and begin this momentous day.

Nathaniel walked over to the oaken wardrobe on the far wall and opened it.

It was empty. All his clothes had disappeared.

He stared at the bare hooks. This part of the prank would be Sebastian’s doing, he imagined. It had his next younger brother’s touch. Nathaniel met his own gaze in the mirror set into the wardrobe door, and acknowledged the spark of amused annoyance in his eyes. His brothers had a fiendish facility for complicated jests.

The figure in the glass shook its head. All the sons of the Duke of Langford were tall, handsome, broad-shouldered men with auburn hair and blue eyes. Sebastian was the tallest. Robert the wittiest. Randolph was acknowledged as the handsomest, James the most adventurous, and Alan the smartest. But he was the eldest, and the heir.

For as long as he could remember, Nathaniel had felt the weight of his destiny. The others said it was a burden to have everything done ahead of them, but he’d felt the onus of being the pattern, setting up the expectations, being the son visitors scrutinized the most. He would be the next duke; he must show he was worthy. Thus, he kept a tight rein on his wilder impulses. Instead, he was the one who came to the rescue when one of his brothers went too far, kicking up a lark.

And so now, he did not slam the empty wardrobe shut, but simply closed it. He would leave it to his valet to straighten this out. He wanted hot water for washing, and then clothes, and then breakfast. He went to ring for Cates, and discovered that the bell rope had been removed. He could see the wire to which it had been connected, near the ceiling, twelve feet up. It must have taken two or three of his brothers to reach so high.

For a moment he just stood there, staring at it. This final touch would be Robert’s idea, no doubt. He’d always been the most ingenious, the brother who added the crowning climax to a prank. Robert would be the one to set the others guffawing—describing their elder brother slinking through the corridors of the Earl of Moreley’s house wrapped in a wolf skin, like some sort of demented ancient Celt. Even Nathaniel had to smile at the picture. How would Violet’s fierce stickler of a grandmother like that? And all the other near and distant relations visiting for the wedding? He’d barely met most of them. Perhaps he’d twine some ivy from outside the window in his hair and attempt a Gaelic war cry.

Nathaniel laughed. Truth to tell, it was a splendid prank, unfolding like a puzzle box upon its hapless victim. All that remained was for him to wiggle out of the trap so cunningly set.

He eyed the windows and considered pulling down some of his almost-mother-in-law’s elaborate draperies to wrap about himself. But one panel would trail behind him like a coronation robe. The picture was little better than the wolf skin. Perhaps he would just wait until Cates arrived on his own. It couldn’t be too much longer. In fact, judging by the sunlight, his valet ought to have appeared well before now. Where the devil was he?
As if in answer to this thought, there was a knock at the door.


The voice was the last he expected. “Violet?”

“Are you all right? James said you needed to speak to me most urgent—” The door opened, and Nathaniel’s promised bride looked around the panels.

“Oh!” Her mouth dropped open.

Nathaniel—stark naked, next to a bed sporting only a rumpled wolf skin—braced for a shriek, a shocked retreat, babbled apologies. But Violet just looked at him. Indeed, it seemed as if she couldn’t tear her eyes away. He could almost feel her gaze traveling along his skin, as if it left trails of warmth. He saw something stir in those gray eyes, something he’d never observed before, and his body began to respond to the possibility of much more than he’d expected from his suitable marriage. Respond all too eagerly.

Nathaniel moved over behind the bed. “My brothers’ idea of a joke,” he said with a gesture toward the wolf skin.

Violet blinked. Color flooded her cheeks, and she looked away.

“How did they…?” Her voice was rather choked.

“They are endlessly inventive. They stole my clothes as well. Would you have someone send Cates to me? I would ring but”—he pointed to the bell wire—“they were quite thorough.”

Violet glanced at the denuded wire, swallowed, and gave a quick nod. “Of course.” In the next instant, she was gone.

“Well, well,” murmured Nathaniel to the wolf. “That was interesting.”

His days of being capable of interest long past, the wolf made no reply.

Jane Ashford discovered Georgette Heyer in junior high school and was captivated by the glittering world and witty language of Regency England. That delight led her to study English literature and travel widely in Britain and Europe. Her historical and contemporary romances have been published in Sweden, Italy, England, Denmark, France, Russia, Latvia, Slovenia, and Spain, as well as the U.S. Twenty-six of her new and backlist Regency romances are being published by Sourcebooks. Jane has been nominated for a Career Achievement Award by RT Book Reviews. She is currently rather nomadic.

*U.S. residents only


Posted in Guest Posts, Historicals, Romance | Tagged , | 32 Comments

Lady Breakwynd’s Boxing Day Bulletin: A Truely Tropeful Holiday Missive

‘Tis been quite a year for us here in our small town of Sandy Balls. And to think, a year ago, I despaired of my daughters Arabella and Lavinia finding husbands and worried my darling Didimus would never take a bride. As for me, well, I was sure I’d live out the rest of my years here at Cinnabon, dedicated to the memory of my dear departed Humphrey. Though I’d vow it never happens, it must be acknowledged, in these assumptions, I was mistaken.

I must state my fear that Arabella would remain a spinster was understandable. The girl is such a, dare I say, bluestocking. If she’s read a single volume from our library while draping herself artfully over the yellow floral silk covered chaise lounge, she’s read them all. A man finds nothing less attractive than an overly educated female. My dear departed Humphrey often told me he loved nothing in me so much as the sweet simplicity of my thoughts. It must be said that Arabella’s overactive mind is paired with curls of guinea gold and eyes the color of cloudless summer day. I have often said that while a fair countenance is not enough to discount unladylike behavior, it is indeed a boon. I surmise Arabella’s exceptional visage caught the attention of Lord Hardmeet when the man came to Cinnabon in order to collect a steed he’d won from Didimus. The horse, Neighway, nipped Lord Hardmeet’s hand–I believe it mistook his finger for a carrot–and the resulting injury became infected. As Lord Hardmeet recuperated, he and Arabella quarreled incessantly although the poultice she prepared for his bite was most efficacious. No one was more shocked than I when, two weeks into his stay, the two were discovered alone together in the library, Arabella clad only in a pale virginal nightgown. Despite Arabella’s explanation of only having gone to the library for the second volume of Utopia, there was nothing for it but for them to wed immediately. They have retired to the Lord Hardmeet’s estate of Worst Park where they are arguing still, currently over what to name their first-born child.

Lavinia too is married. I give thanks to our Maker for her wedded state every time I attend services at The Fair Shepherd. I have often said a large income is the finest balm for a broken heart. Lavinia’s union with the Duke of Wellendowd proves me right. Wellendowd was an unlikely candidate for matrimony. His rakish enterprises were the talk of London–it’s said he once engaged in amorous conduct in a retiring room at Almack’s with Lady Cocksworth! And the unsavory circumstance by which he came into our lives promised naught but heartache for the Breakwynd family. You see, my darling Didimus had, in a low moment brought on by too much geneva, gambled away the family fortune by losing at a game of faro to Wellendowd on Boxing Day. I still get palpitations of the heart when I give the matter any thought. Wellendowd came to Cinnabon to collect his winnings on the first day of the year. But, once he arrived, his true desire revealed itself to be Lavinia whom he’d seen at the funeral of his cousin, Corin Powell, Lavinia’s childhood sweetheart. Lavinia had sworn never to love again after Corin died after being attacked by a skulk of rabid foxes. The Duke offered to forgo collecting his winnings in exchange for Lavinia’s hand in marriage. Knowing that were she to marry Wellendowd, our family would be saved from a life of too few servants and limited new wardrobes, Lavinia accepted his offer. And though she was sure she’d never give her heart to another man, she and the Duke appear quite happy. When I asked her the reason for her joy in their union, she said that the Duke’s staff was as large as his fortune.

Didimus has finally embraced matrimony. He’s wed Horatia Quimley, the daughter of Lord Rantipole. Horatia is a striking girl although I worry her fiery red curls are the mark of an overly tempestuous nature. I’ve not yet ferreted out the exact nature of their courtship although I did overhear Wellendowd ask Didi if it was true Horatia had bested him in the Shitsbrooke Run but surely that’s a fiction for a lady only rides for pleasure, never for a purse. It is my hope that within the deep peace of the marital clasp, Didi will forget the lure of the gaming tables and attend to those matters that require his attention as the Lord of Breakwynd.

As for myself, I too have found some unexpected joy this year. In the five years since my dear Humphrey died suddenly from apoplexy after seeing Madame Odette’s millinery bill, I’ve lived sedately, enjoying the solitude that comes with widowhood. However, last February I began to suffer from malaise and thus sought treatment from a heralded physician in London. Dr. Capsheaf studied in France and believes strongly in the use of the induced paroxysm as an effective antidote for feminine melancholy. After two months of thrice weekly treatments administered by Dr. Capsheaf I found myself much restored. Dr. Capsheaf has agreed to an indefinite course of this remedy. I now reside in our London Mayfair home where I am redecorating every room in the Oriental style.


Lady Araminta Breakwynd


Posted in Dabney AAR | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Sam Heughan: A Romance Hero for the Ages

jamieI’ve been thinking about the Golden Globes, which followed the Emmys in failing to nominate Sam Heughan for Outlander (the show was nominated for Best Drama, and both Caitriona Balfe as Claire and Tobias Menzies as Black Jack scored acting nominations). In criticizing this omission, most people point to the last few episodes of the season which, without getting spoilery, contain emotional and violent scenes which are the classic route to awards attention.

I would also have liked to have seen Heughan nominated, but for a totally different reason. In fact, I haven’t even seen the last two episodes yet. I thought Heughan did something exceptional long before those episodes – and that was to satisfy female viewers with his depiction of a beloved romantic hero.

People think women are simple. Throw a good-looking man on a screen, take his shirt off a few times, and have him deliver a few lines like “Because I wanted you. More than I had ever wanted anything in my life.” Anybody with a face, a body, and a British accent can do it. Right?

We’ve all heard this before, except instead of about actors, we hear it about our genre. “Romance heroes? So easy to write. Rich, good-looking, great in bed. That’s all women want.” There is a tendency to value “gritty” acting over the ability to win people’s hearts, just as there’s a tendency to weight downer prestige literature over the happy endings of genre romance. And yet the lucrative nature of romantic film means that if anybody could do it, I’m pretty sure a lot more people would.

Shockingly, women (and yes, I’m focusing on straight female readers here) are more complicated than that. If you look at AAR’s Top Ten Heroes poll (last conducted in 2009), we routinely fall for men who violate the stereotypical code. Jamie is a laird, true, but he spends most of the Outlander novels just getting by, and at many points, he’s destitute. Loretta Chase’s Sebastian Ballister (Dain), another Top 10 hero, is described as ugly. Mr. Darcy doesn’t even kiss Elizabeth Bennet, let alone have hot sex with her.

Portraying a romantic hero on screen is also harder than it looks. If it were as simple as scoring the role of a beloved character, then there should have been at least seven outbreaks of Darcymania (IMDB shows at least seven P&P adaptations; more if you count variants like Bride and Prejudice). There weren’t. Although there’s probably a plurality of fans for Timothy Dalton, Jane Eyre is still looking for “the” Rochester (I like Toby Stephens best, myself).

It’s not just what you’re given, it’s what you do with it. And Heughan has done something special. It is not every actor whose fans raise thousands of dollars for his charity of choice (in Heughan’s case, Bloodwise, for fighting leukemia and lymphoma). Or who inspires fans to vote literally millions of times for fan choice awards, upsetting such beloved and established favorites as David Tennant. It’s easy, folks say? Then why aren’t more people doing it?

To talk more specifically about what makes his portrayal a winning one for me, Sam Heughan’s Jamie is a wonderful mix of boyish enthusiasm, youthful awkwardness, and a power and sex appeal that are all adult male. He and Caitriona Balfe create chemistry in even the shortest dialogues – and sometimes in scenes with no dialogue at all. Jamie is strong (even dangerous) and smart, which makes him appealing as a protector and exciting as a fantasy. At the same time, Heughan lets Jamie be more vulnerable than I picture the character in the books, and it’s utterly charming.

What are some difficult romantic scenes in which I think Heughan did something special?

The music performance: in Episode 3 (The Way Out), at a performance of a visiting bard, Jamie lights up at the chance to sit next to Claire and translate for her. Heughan makes Jamie young and the opposite of hero-suave, eager to impress his crush Claire and totally oblivious to Laoghaire’s attempts to win him over. (This is a recurring problem).

Later in that same episode, the gunshot wound. Claire checks Jamie’s healing shoulder by loosening his cravat in the firelit castle surgery, and oh, the stories Sam Heughan tells with his eyes. If there had not been a fire going in the surgery already, one probably would have spontaneously broken out.

Wedding night awkwardness: So much of Episode 7 (The Wedding) is memorable for character-filled sex scenes. Heughan puts personality into every moment, even the ones which last only a second. It adds up to a full characterization of the uncertainty, hope, and passion of a young man on one of the most important nights of his life. Jamie’s are-you-kidding-me laugh when Claire panics and forestalls his kiss by asking about his family. His self-deprecating eyeroll at the endless process of removing Claire’s clothing. His pout when he realizes that he hadn’t done much for Claire. His expressions of pure physical pleasure. It’s rare enough to find authentic sex scenes on paper. On film, it’s the baby of a unicorn and a white whale. (I suppose that makes The Wedding episode some sort of narwhal?)

Thinking with the little brain: In Episode 9, the Reckoning, there is a marvelous moment in which Claire and Jamie discuss Mackenzie clan politics as Claire gets ready for bed. Jamie starts to stumble in his speech, becoming distracted and physically twitchy, as he visibly loses the ability to process anything other than Claire+Bed+Nightdress = Possibility?

Colin Firth’s Darcy is two decades old. Richard Armitage’s Thornton is one decade. We are still recommending these performances to new romance viewers on our forums and blogs. In ten years, and in twenty, we’ll be doing the same for Heughan’s Jamie. And that’s something I just don’t anticipate for any of the performances that were nominated.

Do you think romantic actors suffer the same discrimination as the romance genre? Are you enjoying Sam Heughan in Outlander? If so, what are some of your favorite moments?

Caroline Russomanno

Posted in Caroline AAR, Television | Tagged , , | 56 Comments

An AAR Gift Guide: Children and YA

Following on from our Gift Guide for lovers of Romantic Mysteries, we’re now presenting some ideas for you if you are going to give books as gifts to Children and Young Adults. AAR staffers have come up with some of their favourite books; a mixture of classics, and more recently published tales to suit a variety of tastes.

Anne suggests a selection of classic children’s books, saying that there are some that today’s children might be familiar with. She remembers growing up watching Heidi on TV, but recalls that the most recent adaptation was in 2005, so that younger girls might not have heard of it. The same is true of books such as The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island, and many others. These classics live on because parents (and relatives) give a nice copy to a child and say “This was my favorite book growing up.” The book doesn’t always “take” the first time, but maybe later?…

I would certainly say that perhaps the complexity of the writing in some of the books we regard as children’s classics is – today – beyond many in the age group they are aimed at, but they’re terrific books to read to your child. Mine loved having Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen(which I remember from school in the 1970s!), Clive King’s Stig of the Dump and Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians and The Twilight Barking read to them when they were younger.

Another favourite is Anne of Green Gables – Blythe says that for her, it never gets old and that she loved it as a girl and then loved reading it to her children. There are some nice editions out there, but personally, she prefers a good paperback that can be dog-eared and worn into the ground (which is what her original copy looks like!)

Still on the theme of the traditional, last year, my youngest (then aged 12) asked for a complete edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (she especially wanted one that has the original endings and not the sanitised versions now found in some editions!) I got her the Wordsworth Classics edition, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, which she loves and dips into all the time.

And when my kids were younger, no pre-Christmas bedtime was complete in my house without a reading of Twas the Night Before Christmasby Clement Clarke Moore. Our version is sadly now out of print, but there are plenty of other editions to choose from.

For the Middle-schooler (or lower, if you have an advanced reader), Caroline recommends Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fannie Britt and Isabelle Arsenault.

Helene, on the outs with the Mean Girls in her class and worried about her weight, takes comfort and companionship from her copy of Jane Eyre. This is a pretty and lovely Canadian graphic novel translated from French. Not only will a young reader enjoy it, but it might pique her interest in reading Jane’s story too!

Melanie’s current favourite picture book is Julia’s House for Lost Creatures. She loves both the creatures and the story (Julia’s lonely by herself, but her new housemates don’t clean up after themselves! What a mess!), and it works really well for little kids (her 3-year-old niece loves it, as does her 6-yr-old cousin, athough it’s too early to tell with her 18-month-old nephew because he’s still at the pulling out pages stage…).

Like mother, like daughter, my eldest is a huge fan of historical novels, and for the budding historian aged 11-15, she recommends Theresa Breslin’s The Nostradamus Prophecy, a fast-paced historical thriller, and for older fans, Eve Edwards’ trilogy of novels set in Tudor England, The Other Countess, The Queen’s Lady and The Rogue’s Princess, three novels linked through the brothers who are the heroes, and in which the historical detail is very well observed and written. And although this was mentioned in another of our Gift Guides, I can’t pass up the chance to wholeheartedly recommend Sherry Thomas’ Elemental Trilogy (The Burning Sky, The Perilous Sea and The Immortal Heights) which is a wonderfully gripping mixture of magical fantasy adventure and romance, perfect for older teens and YA readers.

And finally, Haley has given us a fabulous list of recommendations for children, teens and YA readers:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling and illustrated by Jim Kay. 

If you have a child in your life that is coming to the age for reading Harry Potter the first time, let it be this edition. I wish I’d had this version when I was eight years old and got Harry Potter as my Christmas gift. Kay’s illustrations are detailed, whimsical, and so true to the story. Each page as some kind of detailing, even it is just made to look like stains, or little potion bottles lining the bottom, or perhaps clouds. The full page illustrations of the major characters are fantastic. I am planning to give this to some adults I know who, like me, are lifelong fans.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

This book won the Newbery award so it doesn’t need any lauding from me, but I will say this is a book that stuck with me. Ivan is a gorilla who lives in a cramped enclosure at a shopping mall. He likes to draw and fantasizes about eating human food. Other than that, he keeps to himself. As a narrator, he is succinct because, as he explains, gorillas are serious and quiet – not like chimps and humans. When a baby elephant joins to menagerie at the mall, it spurs Ivan’s desire to free the other animals. This is based on the true story of Ivan the Gorilla who lived to be 50 years old, and sadly spent 27 of those years in a 14×14 concrete enclosure at a shopping mall, until public outrage got him moved to a zoo. This book made me cry like a baby in the best way and I recommend it for animals lovers young and old.

Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner

Skippyjon is my favorite picture book character. This silly Siamese kitten dreams of being a chihuahua bandito who would fight evil in a cape and mask. The illustrations are beyond adorable (who wouldn’t love Skippy’s giant ears?) and the story is fun and lyrical. Plus, if the child in your life enjoys it, there are several more in the series to continue with. This book is good for kindergarten age and up.

Is There a Dog in This Book? by Viviane Schwarz

This picture book is a go-to favorite for when I need a read aloud. The cats in the book are worried that a dog as gotten in and need the reader’s help in hiding. The interactive flaps add an extra layer of fun to the story. This is great for preschool aged children.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Another Newbery winner, and perfect for older elementary age children. This free-verse story about a young girl living in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl is one that I read as a child, and has stuck with me since. The free-verse format lends a sparseness to the narration that is perfect for the setting. Hesse’s poetic approach to such a difficult time period makes this a great book for introducing young readers to the history of the Great Depression in an accessible way.


A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

This may have been my favorite new book of 2015. It is YA, but seems to be more grown up that some other books in the genre. This is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, or perhaps East of the Sun West of the Moon, set in a world where humans live precariously alongside dangerous fae. The world that Maas has built is anything but Happily Ever After. Feyre’s family is on the brink of starvation and poor when she kills what she thinks is a wolf in the woods. That wolf was actually a fae in disguise, and as retribution, Feyre must go live with the High Lord of the Spring Court. The whole reason to read this book is Tamlin, the High Lord. He is everything you want in a sexy leading man. This is perfect for those that love fairy tales or fantasy romance. I would save this one for older teens, as the sexuality is more frank (although not explicit) than some YA. I also think it is perfect reading for adult romance fans as well.

The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

I love this whole series, and I love Meyer. The first book is Cinder, which is a sci-fi adaption of Cinderella. I was hooked from the start on the idea of a cyborg Cinderella, and an evil queen who lives on the moon. Each book in the series continues the storyline, while introducing a new set of characters and new fairy tale. Book two is Scarlet, and adds a spaceship driving delivery girl Red Riding Hood and a genetically mutated wolf man. Book three is called Cress and introduces Rapunzel, who is stuck in a satellite rather than a tower, and space-pirate Captain Thorne. The most recent book – Winter – just came out and I adored the version of Snow White that Meyer wrote. Winter is the princess of Luna who is slowly going mad. Rather than prince charming, her love interest is her guard Jacin (who plays the role of the huntsman ordered to kill Snow White.) The series also has a novella about the evil queen Levana called Fairest and several short stories that will soon be released as a collection. Meyer does excellent romance, action, as well as humor. All of the characters are fully formed and you’ll remember them long after you stop reading.

Penryn and the End of Days series by Susan Ee

The first book, Angelfall, starts six weeks after a Biblical-esque apocalypse started on earth. An angel came down to deliver a message to mankind, but was shot down, and now the angels are decimating the human population. Penryn is trying to protect her mentally-ill mother and handicapped sister when a run in with the angels throws off her plans. She is forced to team up with an injured angel, Raffe, to save her sister. These books have action, romance, and a touch of horror. Each one is a book you’ll want to read in one sitting. Excellent for teens or adults who like paranormal romance and don’t mind things getting a little creepy.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor

Karou is a teenager with an unusual background. You see, she was raised by monsters in a shop that deals in magic and teeth (yes, teeth). This series is still one of the most unique stories I have ever read. Taylor’s writing is beautiful, and sometimes harsh. The second book, Days of Blood and Starlight, broke my heart. The sexy angel warrior, Akiva, is one of my all-time favorite leads and the world-building is impeccable.

The Rephaim series by Paula Weston

This series originates from Australia (as does the author), so some of the books haven’t been released in the US yet. The first two are available, and international readers can easily get all four. (They are definitely available from Amazon UK – ed.) I loved them so much that I ordered the last two from a seller in the UK so I wouldn’t have to wait until their US release dates. The first book, Shadows introduces the reader to Gaby, who is living in Pandanus Beach after a tragic car accident that killed her brother. She has nightmares about fighting demons and, when she turns one of those nightmares into a story and posts it online, it attracts some paranormal attention. These are action packed and the story line moves quickly. I think the whole series probably takes place in the span of less than two weeks. Great for teens, but be warned there is some language and sexuality that isn’t seen as often in the cleaner YA books that are released in the US.





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TBR Challenge – The Happiest of Holidays

hollyandivy It’s no secret that I love a good Christmas romance. With this month’s TBR theme being holiday romance, I just had to go looking for something Christmasy, and preferably historical. I found a treat in Elisabeth Fairchild’s 1999 trad Regency, The Holly and the Ivy. It’s not high drama, but rather a sweetly traditional Christmas story. The hero irked me at times, but otherwise I loved the book and I’d give it a B+.

The hero, Lord Balfour, is often known as Lord Thorn for his prickly demeanor. However, readers learn early on that there is a reason for the prickliness and the need for routine and control. Balfour’s parents pretty much abandoned him to the care of school and servants from an early age. His butler, Temple, acted as his main father figure until dying suddenly. Now bereft, Balfour approaches his first holiday season without Temple and though he is often impatient and rude, one can also see how lost he feels. And that makes him just human enough to be likable – most of the time.

Balfour’s rigid little world gets upended by the neighbors. Though not aristocracy, elderly Mrs. Rivers was quite comfortable once. Now in ill health, she is unaware that her servants have stolen from her to the point that she lacks sufficient funds to maintain her household. Her granddaughter, Mary Rivers, newly arrived from the countryside, tries to keep some of this painful knowledge from her.
Continue reading

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Mind your language! A Guest Post by KJ Charles

One of the joys, or not, of writing historical romance is the language choices it requires. Obviously, if you’re writing an Anglo-Saxon romance, you’re going to have to go for modern English. I mean, you don’t have to…

ne bið he no þæs nearwe under niðloc…
þæs bitre gebunden under bealuclommum,
þæt he þy yð ne mæge ellen habban.

No, let’s stick with modern English, simply avoiding the more glaring offences of slang, technical terms and other obvious date markers. (Such as Shakespeare referring to ‘popish tricks’ in Titus Andronicus, a play set in pre-Christian Rome. Honestly, what a loser.)

It gets trickier when we come closer to now. On the one hand, you want to give a period flavour to your words; on the other, if you really try to write in, say, Georgian-style English you’ll leave readers blinking and bewildered. I recently bought a novel set in 1780 that was praised (by, I assume, the author’s mum) for its period language. I chucked it aside at p.15 because it was utterly incomprehensible, and that’s coming from a word nerd who’s just written a Regency-set trilogy

Historical readers love a bit of Heyeresque slang, but that can be easily overdone. I am a massive fan, but the great Georgette was capable of dialogue which…

Chuff it! I told you at the time that I wasn’t going to let you break my shins! … You must have been having the devil of a time in the bumble-broth I brewed. Thank you, bantling!

Much of it becomes clear from the context, of course, but take this passage from The Unknown Ajax when a young man has been (supposedly) playing cards and drinking with his cousins:

“From the looks of it, he’ll be casting up his accounts before he’s much older. Better get him to bed.”

For years I had a vague idea that ‘cast up his accounts’ meant to settle his card losses. Actually, the next bit of dialogue should have made all clear: 

He will in all probability cast ‘em up as soon as he gets to his feet.”

Even this much grounding doesn’t necessarily make forgotten slang accessible: I had no idea it meant ‘throw up’ for ages. (In my defence, I started reading Heyer before I started drinking.)

Slang pro tip: Jonathon Green, the slang lexicographer, has made extraordinary Timelines of Slang available on the internet. You can find the first use of all kinds of wonderful words and phrases here, although you can also spend hours giggling hysterically at modern synonyms for masturbation, so caution is required.  

Of course, it’s not just slang that authors have to consider. Absolutely accurate language is impossible, but that doesn’t mean writers should be blasé about anachronistic wording. I have read Regency romances that use ‘impact’ as a verb (“Your cruelty impacted me greatly, my lord!”), and even seen a Battle of Waterloo ‘okay’, although I didn’t see it for long due to chucking the book across the room with force. 

Those are obviously terrible, but how are you to know which apparently routine words to check? Did you know that while ‘burglar’ dates from the 16th century, the verb ‘to burgle’ is a back-formation dating from the 1880s? No, nor did I. Thank God for copy editors. 

And of course some words have changed meaning and there’s not much you can do about that. In A Seditious Affair, set 1819-20, calling someone a ‘democrat’ has something like the force of ‘communist’ or ‘Trot’ or even ‘domestic terrorist’ now. I know that, but it still feels weird to have ‘democratic scum’ on the page as a term of abuse.

In the end, of course, it’s all an approximation. I’m not writing Regency English; I’m just trying not to jolt the reader out of the illusion that that’s what I’m doing. And of course any effort at accuracy has to be balanced by the need of the modern reader, who just isn’t going to know if a gaying instrument is the same thing as a Sir John, and if it is, what you might do with it. (It is, and you should dance the blanket hornpipe. Obviously.)

Hmm. There’s a lot to be said for Anglo-Saxon words, isn’t there?

KJ Charles is a writer and freelance editor. She lives in London with her husband, two kids, an out-of-control garden and an increasingly murderous cat. Her latest, A Seditious Affair, received an A+ from AAR

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