It was the summer of 2008 and I, a passionate reader, had my first Kindle. It was magical–a device you could just push a button and get books, as many as you could find and afford, and read to your heart’s content. I’d had the thing for a couple of weeks and was perusing the Amazon Kindle page. I can’t remember if it was free or it was the most downloaded book of the day but that day I decided to buy Karen Marie Moning’s Darkfever. At the time, I hadn’t read a romance novel for over thirty years. That book sucked me in and I still haven’t been spit out. I had a problem, however. I wanted to read more romance but had no way to figure out which ones sucked and which rocked. Thank the gods for the internet. A few clicks and, boom, I discovered AAR. For the next two years, nearly every romance I bought I found through AAR and its Power Search feature. I discovered quickly that I loved well-written romances that were, well, hot.
I thought of this as I tried to pick my top ten favorite romances. As all of us who have participated in this set of columns can tell you, it’s nearly impossible–if you love romance–to pick just ten books. (Honestly, ten books? What were we thinking?) Ultimately, I chose the ten books I reread the most often, the books I never tire of, the books I confidently recommend. After I made my list I decided to check my choices against AAR reviews. And guess what? I’m still in sync, five years later, with AAR. Of the ten books I picked, five are DIKs and none received less than a B. One of them is rated Burning, five are Hot, and four are Warm.
Listed in no particular order, are my top ten favorite romances, four of which I discovered as a reader at AAR.
Romancing Mr. Bridgerton by Julia Quinn. (AAR grade B+, rating Warm) This was not the first Bridgerton book I read, but it remains the one I like best. Many romances tell the story of the brainy non-beauty who falls for a gorgeous hero but few have a heroine to rival Penelope Featherstone. Here’s a woman who on the surface seems to be a wallflower with awful fashion sense and an even worse mother. But, as written by the extremely capable Ms. Quinn, we know from the beginning Penelope is so much more than what society sees. We see her as the fearless, brilliant, justifiably proud woman she is. It’s a book in which the hero, despite being wonderful, is almost undeserving of the woman who loves him. But, because he’s a Bridgerton and because he slowly sheds his limited perceptions of Penelope, by the time he is arguing with her mother about which sister he wishs to marry, Colin Bridgerton has stolen our hearts, just as he stole Penelope’s two days before her sixteenth birthday.
Reckless by Anne Stuart. (AAR grade A, rating Hot) Anne Stuart is one of my favorite writers of romantic suspense. If asked to pick a series I reread the most, her Ice books would be in my top three. (Favorite: Cold as Ice) Her early historicals, however, didn’t wow me. And while I like the first in her House of Rohan series, Ruthless, it didn’t knock my socks off. Reckless did. I was entranced from the very first line, “Move your bleedin’ arse,” Miss Charlotte Spenser’s maid, Meggie, said to her.” Charlotte is a wonderful heroine but, oh, Adrian Rohan makes me tingle. He’s so bad and almost unbearably hot. The scene where he first has sex with Charlotte is jarringly erotic and utterly seductive. Reckless also has a lovely secondary romance–I am a sucker for these–between a rake turned parson and a woman famed for her legion of lovers. It also, without an once of heavy handedness, presents sexuality as something broader than boy meets girl. It’s one of Ms. Stuart’s best works and that is saying something.
It Happened One Autumn by Lisa Kleypas. (AAR grade A-, rating Hot) When I began reading romance, I read every historical romance Ms. Kleypas had published. She’s a strong writer who fills her books with interesting historical tidbits, engaging characters, and smokin’ sex scenes. Of her Wallflower books, many prefer The Devil in Winter with louche hero Sebastian St. Vincent. Not me. The hero of It Happened One Autumn, the smart, responsible, too tightly wound Marcus Westcliffe is the kind of guy I’d fall for had I been invited to house parties in 1840s England. Marcus, an earl, is appalled by the forthright, opinionated, curious Lillian Bowman who is, of all things, an American soap heiress. Lillian, reasonably, thinks he’s an ass. Neither of them, however, can keep their hands off the other every time they’re alone and watching them fight their mutual attraction is a joy. How can you not love a book where the heroine, rather drunk on pear brandy, reduces the hero to a man in lust by saying to him “Sometimes when I look at you, I want to tear off all your buttons. Or set your trousers on fire.” This book should come with an antique painted fan.
What I Did for a Duke by Julie Anne Long. (AAR grade A-, rating Hot) This book has it all. It’s witty, sexy, smartly plotted, resists expectations, and the plot turns on a painting by Titian. The interactions between Genevieve Eversea and Alexander Moncrieffe, the rather terrifying Duke of Falconbridge, are sublime. I, like fans of Ms. Long’s Pennyroyal Green series, am deeply invested in the lives of the Everseas and the Redmonds. This book continues that narrative but works well as a stand alone. What I Did for a Duke begins with a couple you perceive as being a poor match–he is too old, she is in love with another–and over the course of the next 388 pages makes you believe neither could live happily without the other. It’s my second favorite of all of Ms. Long’s books.
I Kissed an Earl by Julie Anne Long. (AAR grade B+, rating Hot) There are, thus far, eight books in the Pennyroyal Green series. This book is indisputably my favorite. This series, from the beginning, has posed as its central question why are Olivia Eversea and Lyon Redmond broken hearted and apart. I Kissed an Earl pursues that plot line with finesse and style. As its heroine Violet Redmond travels the seas on Asher Flint’s boat, determined to find her missing brother, she falls in love with the man tasked with bringing Lyon back to England to face death for crimes he is attributed to committing. In a lesser book, Violet would let her love for Asher overcome her effort to save her brother. In I Kissed an Earl, there are no easy answers for Violet or for Asher and the ways in which they are forced to foil the other are presented as difficult and painful. Ms. Long writes strong sex scenes; the lust and the passion between Asher and Violet is brilliantly done.
Extreme Danger by Shannon McKenna. (AAR grade B, rating Burning) I dislike the words guilty pleasure used to describe a romance novel. That said, if I had a guilty pleasure read, it would be Ms. McKenna’s Extreme Danger. The hero, Nick Ward, is a sullen, surly, rude, sex-obsessed alpha-male who takes far too long to believe in the lovely caring woman who stumbles into his deadly and messed-up life. The heroine, Becca, is a tad sweeter than I usually like my female leads and, at times, she comes across as irritatingly stereotypically female. The bad guys are so evil they’re unpleasant to read about and I find the majority of the McCloud tribe (this book is part of an ongoing series) annoying. And yet, I think I’ve read this book twenty times. I love the sex, I love the way Nick is overcome by love, and I love the necessary grovel at the end. Ms. McKenna writes about female anatomy as though she were channeling Georgia O’Keefe and her celebration of pleasure works for me every time.
This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. (AAR grade A, rating Warm) This book makes many in Romancelandia furious. The heroine, Molly Somerville, has nonconsensual sex with football star quarterback Kevin Tucker. As Kevin himself points out, after the fact, if their roles had been reversed, it would be called rape. But, just as Kevin forgives Molly, so do I. Molly pays for her crime in many ways and, as written by Ms. Phillips, she’s such a likable heroine her bad decision doesn’t define her. I love the Stars series–and I hate actual football–and in this book, as she does in the rest of the series, Ms. Phillips gives the reader a rich plot with an excellent secondary love story. Molly is a successful author of children’s books and snippets from her stories are woven into the novel in endearing and enlightening ways. The book is sweet, funny, sexy, and slightly sad. Ms. Phillips is one of the reigning queens of contemporary romance and this book shows why.
Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas. (AAR grade A-, rating Hot) I am a serious Sherry Thomas fan girl. This is the first book I ever read by Ms. Thomas and has remained my favorite. I love Gigi and Camden and their messy, sexy, struggle for power. Gigi is one the strongest female in Ms. Thomas’s books and it’s great fun to see Camden empower her even as he tells himself he can’t stand her. The scene where Camden takes Gigi against his desk, divesting her of her clothes as he explains the way he’s built his yachts, is one of my all time favorite seductions. But the thing I love best about Private Arrangements is the secondary romance between the Duke of Perrin and Gigi’s mother, Mrs. Roland. It’s my favorite secondary love story in any novel. It’s the rare romance that features a witty, steamy relationship between a couple in their late forties. Langford’s and Victoria’s is all that and more.
His at Night by Sherry Thomas. (AAR grade B+, rating Warm) This is a masterpiece of a novel. Each time I read it, I try to imagine being an iota as inventive as Ms. Thomas is here and fail miserably. The hero, Lord Vere, is one of the most sympathetic characters in romance as well as one with perhaps the most distinctive role. His personas, warring as they are with one another, would have, in a lesser book, been unbelievable. In His at Night, they’re a marvel. Elissande is a match for him and watching the two navigate the necessary deceptions they throw in each other’s way is a tremendous fun. This book also contains my favorite love scene in Ms. Thomas’s works. Oh to be shushed.
Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. (AAR rating A-, rating Warm) I love this book. Dean Robillard is the funniest of Ms. Phillips’s heroes and his snarky battle of wits with Blue Bailey is dazzling. The two giggle their way through sex that’s actually sexy. The secondary romance is barely that–it’s almost as important a part of the plot as Dean’s and Blue’s. It features Dean’s parents, a rock god and a model, both in their 50’s. The two are filled with regret for a past they can’t undo and struggling to make things right in the present. Dean’s dad, American rock star Jack Patriot, is written with so much verisimilitude, I half expect to hear him on XM. Every time I read this book, it makes me laugh.
This list, of course, is arbitrary. Were I writing it a different week, I suspect it would include Uncommon Passion by Anne Calhoun, one of the Seattle Chinooks books by Rachel Gibson, a book or two by Joanna Bourne, and at least one novella by Courtney Milan. Oh, and Heat by R. Lee Smith. There are too many books and too little space on my top ten list. In fact, I bet if I began searching AAR, looking for well-written books with heat, I’d (re)discover many I’ve missed. Thank heavens for that database.