As I’m sure a number of other AAR reviewers discovered when choosing their Top Ten Favorite romance books, it’s not an easy task. I whittled my list down to twenty and realized some of my absolute favorites still had to be marked off the list. I wondered, should I include those ultimate favorites from ten years ago when I was most passionate about the romance genre? Or, now that my tastes have evolved, should I choose newer discoveries that more closely match my tastes today? And since I listen to so many audiobooks, how could I keep those with excellent audio deliveries from influencing my choice of print books? Not easy. But then I realized just how much my Top Ten audiobooks list would differ from those books available in print format only and decided to not mix the two. I’ll save my list of top audiobooks for a Speaking of Audiobooks column.
As I reduced the list to only ten books, I decided to include a number of romances that were A+ reads years ago and a number that are my first choices today. After painfully marking a good number of extremely good, completely satisfying reads off the list, here are my Top Ten Favorites in no particular order.
1. Keeper of the Dream by Penelope Williamson
It’s been nine years since I read Keeper of the Dream and it is the only book on my Top Ten list that I haven’t read a second time. It was such a perfectly blissful reading experience that I fear even the possibility of losing the magic with a reread. A medieval tale with a number of the usual plot elements including the conqueror and daughter of the defeated lord, it’s not usual at all and its ending haunted me for months. My “fantastic book” hangover lasted all those months as well since nothing came close to my experience of reading Keeper of the Dream.
2. It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Philips
When I think laugh-out-loud romance, I think SEP. Ten of her titles (all published before 2007) sit on my DIK list but It Had to Be You, the first in the Chicago Stars series, sits nearest the top. Professional football coach Dan Calebow locks horns with the team’s seeming bimbo of a new owner Phoebe Somerville, who not only inherits the team, but knows nothing about football and never wants to. Contrary to Keeper of the Dream, I have read or listened to It Had to Be You at least eight times. And I laugh just as much each time.
3. To Die For by Linda Howard
Linda Howard showcases her versatility and talent for writing hilarious books with this 2005 contemporary/romantic suspense tale. Perfectly successful, blond, former cheerleader, and fitness club owner Blair Mallory witnesses a murder and Detective Wyatt Bloodsworth steps in to investigate. Blair and Wyatt have a background – he walked away from their burgeoning relationship without a word years earlier. It took me months to read To Die For as I doubted my ability to tolerate a perfect cheerleader of a heroine. Boy, was I wrong. This is another book I have read or listened to many times – seven to be exact. It’s sequel, Drop Dead Gorgeous, is thoroughly entertaining as well.
4. Out of Control by Suzanne Brockmann
Although fourth in the Troubleshooters series, Out of Control was the first of the series for me (I read the series out of order). I was stunned by just how thoroughly I enjoyed this detailed military romance and felt it rightfully deserved its 2002 Best Romance and Best Hero awards here at AAR. I was simply amazed at Brockmann’s storytelling and the fact that the book featured four different couples when I usually don’t care to read books or watch movies that feature more than one couple. It’s suspense all the way with the present day romances between leads Ken and Savannah, secondary romance players Jones and Molly (my favorite romance of the book), the WWII romance Brockmann works so seamlessly into her books, and the developing relationship between Alyssa and Sam. There’s not a bit of fluff in its 450 pages and I was completely immersed every step of the way.
5. True Confessions by Rachel Gibson
Rachel Gibson is one of those authors who writes books I love nearly each and every time. At least a dozen of her books rate a personal
DIK and I had to choose just one for my Top Ten to showcase my love for her work. True Confessions features tabloid reporter Hope Spencer who moves to Gospel, ID looking for a way to rid herself of writer’s block (and hide as well) and Sheriff Dylan Taber, the single parent of a seven-year-old, who returned to Gospel after serving ten years as a LAPD homicide detective. Each time I read True Confessions, I find myself laughing all over again while being caught up in a one of the best small town romances I’ve read.
6. Lover Awakened by J.R. Ward
When I started reading the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, I wasn’t a fan of paranormal romance or vampires. Lover Awakened is the third book in that series and features the baddest brother of them all, Zsadist, who is also the most tortured (literally) hero of my reading experience. His relationship with Bella is the things romance legends are made of – deep mutual attraction and admiration moving towards a romance that seems to defy odds. Although Z and Bella’s relationship is front and center just as you want, it is the development of Z as a person and his relationship with his twin brother that provide the most touching moments. It won AAR’s Best Romance award in 2006.
7. All I Ever Wanted by Kristan Higgins
Kristan Higgins writes contemporary romance that reads a little like women’s fiction. Typically the stories center around the heroine yet contain a romance that always packs a punch leaving my need for romance immensely satisfied. Ms. Higgins writes funny, heartwarming stories with flawed vulnerable heroines and everyday men who end up being sexy as hell. All ten of the titles on her backlist are A reads for me – I adore her writing that much. All I Ever Wanted was my first Higgins book featuring an ever-so-likable heroine who has loved her boss for years only to get the news that he’s engaged. She starts looking elsewhere for a man, including the new veterinarian who truly doesn’t seem interested. I found myself laughing – a lot and crying at times as well. After finishing, I purchased every book on Higgins backlist and treated myself to a glom like I haven’t experienced in years.
8. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
An eternal favorite that has captured the top spot in AAR’s Top 100 Romance polls since 2000, I remain amazed at its originality each time I pick it up to reread. Romance writing at its best, Lord of Scoundrels is one of the wittiest books I have had the pleasure of reading. Hard-headed Dain starts out as one appalling guy who ends up looking rather adorable in the end but it isn’t through an unrealistic personality change. He remains a man’s man throughout but is rather befuddled at Jessica’s influence on him. His thought life is hilarious and the couple’s repartee is top notch. Dain’s slow but believable evolvement is the main subject matter here as Ms. Chase takes an ever-so-typical tormented hero and makes the experience entirely atypical.
9. Match Me If You Can by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
The Chicago Stars series ranks two Top Ten entries. SEP pens contemporary romance that just fits completely with my romantic soul. Annabelle is a start-up matchmaker looking for that one big client to get her business off to a resounding start. Heath is the big name sports agent who could do just that for her. To Heath, Annabelle is a badly dressed owner of a screwball operation he has no intention of doing business with. Their romance is fresh, unique, laugh-out-loud, and full of outright fun. There is a secondary romance worthy of its own book and the heroine of It Had to Be You scores as the powerful woman who hates to do business with Heath. All together, for this SEP fan, it’s a priceless experience each time I revisit it.
10. Surrender by Pamela Clare
Set during the French and Indian War, Surrender brings great historical detail, complete with the time’s contentious political environment, to romance. The characters are written true to their time as well with hero Iain Mackinnon as the man forced into service to the British crown. His assignment? Form a group of Rangers to fight as warriors with great stealth rather than as regimented soldiers. Going against orders, Iain rescues Annie from an Indian massacre and the romance begins. It’s full of adventure, multi-layered characters, and, best of all, intense romance. Iain ranks as my favorite hero – period.
– Lea Hensley