AAR picks the very best of 2016


We thought we’d republish this–we’re about to release our top picks for 2017. Did you read any of these? Think we picked well? (originally published on January 4, 2017)

Each year we ask our staff to share the romance, the one romance, they read this year they’d pick as their favorite. This year, as in the past, they’ve picked a variety–there are contemporaries, historicals, paranormals and mysteries on our Best of 2016 list. Where we reviewed a book, we’ve linked to the review and, as usual, clicking on the book cover will take you to Amazon. Enjoy! And, in the comments, let us know what you’d pick!



Janet Boatman:

1Penny Reid’s Beard Science is wonderfully weird, and my humble skills with adjectives will never be able to adequately describe exactly why it is such an amazing book. The story is original and kooky, and her characters are mesmerizingly different. I want to meet and study Ms. Reid like a science project to understand how her brain works, because she’s a creative genius. Banana Cake Queen Jennifer Sylvester takes on the indescribable, bearded Cletus Winston in rural Tennessee, and their journey is mind-bending fun. You’ll find yourself immediately re-reading parts, because you are delightfully baffled by what you just read. Beard Science is refreshing and original, and I thought about its characters and story long after I finished reading. I still find myself smiling like a loon when I think of this book, which might be the best way to explain why it is my Best of 2016.


Maggie Boyd:

There are several books that could have made my best of 2016 pick but this year I let relevance be the guide in choosing THE book. Let me explain. Most of the romances I read aren’t really relevant to what is happening in the world at the time they are published. They tend to be lovely books, with charming characters and terrific prose but they serve as a “vacation” from reality as opposed to making me question it. This year, Jill Sorenson’s Off the Rails was not only beautifully written, with fantastic characters and a heartfelt love story; but it was pertinent to what was and is happening in the world right now. The tale of Maria, a woman who was once an illegal alien in the States and who is currently living in her impoverished town in Mexico, and Ian, the DEA/ICE agent who loves her, does a terrific job of showcasing the nuances of a difficult situation. Capturing both the desperation of the people trying to sneak across the U.S. border and the danger represented by the fraction of them that are related to the drug trade, this romance combines gritty realism with real emotion to pack a heartfelt punch. I strongly recommend it.


Kristen Donnelly:

This year hasn’t been the greatest, as we all know. I’ve been tempted to put it in the freezer, in the spirit of Joey Tribbiani, more than once. Combined with a desperate need to have structure in my life and some reading-heavy work projects, I’ve read over 400 books this year, and picking my pick has been a daunting task. I thought about the various books I’ve pressed into people’s hands this year, declaring “you must read this” for one reason or another, and realized I recommended two more than any others, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne and I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh. Both are engrossing and beautifully crafted, both were debut authors and fresh voices in their genres, and I could easily pick either. If I’m pressed to pick one, however, I’m going to go with I Let You Go. A thriller in every sense of that term, the novel grabbed me from the first paragraph. It was actually released in the UK in 2015, where one of my best friends and fellow fiction-freak lives. She texted me when she read it, demanding I pick it up as soon as I could, and selling me on it by saying that she hadn’t stopped thinking about the characters since she read the page. When I did start reading it, I let her know and her response was that six months later, the book was still with her. After reading it, I could understand why. Enthralling doesn’t even cover it and, nearly nine months after I read it, the characters have stayed with me, too.


Shannon Dyer:

duke-of-my-heartI’ve read so many great books this year, but Kelly Bowen’s Duke of My Heart has to be my favorite. The writing is excellent, the plot is a lot of fun, and the characters are incredibly relatable. I loved the heroine’s quick wit. At first, the hero is put off by her intelligence, but he eventually comes to see it as something positive rather than as a mark against her. They’re an incredible couple.


BJ Jansen:

bitter-legacyChoosing one book to call my pick from a whole year’s reading is a tall order. However, as AAR also features our top tens from the year it takes the pressure off somewhat.

I chose Bitter Legacy by Dal Maclean as my book of the year for several reasons, the first being that this is a début novel. I know that a first book has to really shine to achieve recognition on any level, but this book was recommended by Harper Fox and Josh Lanyon, two best-selling authors who do not recommend lightly. I love their work and so I took a chance on Bitter Legacy. Not only was I pleasantly surprised but I just may have found another author to follow.

This is a superbly plotted crime novel where the romance is cleverly integrated rather than an obvious add-on. The romance and crime story have equal importance and are written with equal intensity. I could hardly put this book down I was hooked by the murder mystery and totally absorbed by the romance.

The writing is very good and very visual –

…her shocked grief dissolved her glossy career-blonde veneer like solvent on paint.

Additionally, this author knows the setting – London – very well, her confidence when describing routes, road names, types of architecture and transport adds a delightful authenticity to the plot and again supports her visual style of writing.

An excellent début and a wonderful, cosy winter’s night read.


Lee B:

Ms. Thomas’s newest series is about a female Sherlock Holmes and she begins with the first story, A Study in Scarlet Women.  It’s very interesting to compare her story with the newest Sherlock Holmes tv series, but having watched that show, I am very impressed with how Ms. Thomas justifies her choice for an intriguing lead character.



Haley Kral:

the-hating-gameMy standout best for 2016 is The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. I am a total sucker for the enemy-to-lovers trope and this book hit all my buttons. Thorne’s writing is quirky without being over the top or irritating, Josh and Lucy are charming and memorable, and the chemistry between them is off the charts. I loved this book so much that I immediately recommended it to everyone I knew that might remotely like romance or women’s fiction or happiness or love or books. Then I couldn’t get it off my mind so I went back and read it a second time. I’m currently biding my time until I’ve forgotten it a tiny bit so I can read it again.


Caz Owens:

the-earl-takes-allPicking a favourite book of 2016 has proved somewhat problematic, as there hasn’t been one real standout as there was last year (when I gave K.J. Charles’ A Seditious Affair my first – and only, so far – A+ grade).  I’ve given a reasonable number of DIKs, this year; outright A grades to Katharine Ashe’s The Earl, Stella Riley’s Lords of Misrule and Lorraine Heath’s The Earl Takes All and A-s to (among others) Cat Sebastian’s début, The Soldier’s Scoundrel, K.C. Bateman’s début, To Steal a Heart, Sherry Thomas’ A Study in Scarlet Women, Laura Andersen’s The Virgin’s War and Rachel Grant’s Poison Evidence.

Any “best book” I pick today will almost certainly be a different one tomorrow, but today I’m going to plump for The Earl Takes All. Lorraine Heath took a really tricky premise – the widow falling for her dead husband’s twin brother – and made it work brilliantly.  The chemistry between the central couple leaps off the page and the romance is very well developed, showing both of them growing together and as individuals.  I loved the flawed, complex central characters and their struggles felt very realistic; complicated and messy but beautifully handled.

It’s an emotionally charged book, right from the start, and that’s something Ms. Heath does so incredibly well and which never fails to draw me in completely.


Maria Rose:

until-im-yoursBy the end of December I’ll have read 400 or so books this year, and narrowing that down to one favorite read is definitely a challenge! But the one story that stands out for me above the others is Until I’m Yours by Kennedy Ryan, the fourth book in The Bennett’s series. Until I’m Yours is the story of an ice princess, a socialite who, from an early age, learned that to show any emotion was to be thought of as weak. Sofie Baston is a supermodel who is under the thumb of her businessman father, a man who wants her to reel in a new investor with her looks. But her ‘mark’, philanthropist entrepreneur Trevor Bishop is able to see Sofie for who she really is. He sets about breaking through her barriers and knows right away that he’s interested in more than just a fling with her – he wants forever. What makes this story so wonderful is that there is no moment in time where Trevor’s intentions waver. When events from Sofie’s past come back to create a scandal, he never doubts her and stands by her side at every turn. The story is intense and emotionally charged with attractive yet flawed and relatable characters.  It flows smoothly and the author has shown me repeatedly, in previous stories in the series and in this one that she can take difficult subject matter and treat it with sensitivity and care. At the same time, this story is a beautiful, sexy romance. It’s got a permanent place on my keeper shelf.


Keira Soleore:

belgraviaI delighted in the gossipy tone of Belgravia by Julian Fellowes. Set in early Victorian times, the book is written with the soaring arc of a saga and the delicacy of shifting emotions. At its core are two intense love stories spanning two generations and class boundaries, and the women in this story, through their love for their men, shake up the 19th century aristocracy. The various story threads allowed me to appreciate the subtleties of class in society and how much of an impact it had on piddling day-to-day matters and grand dynastic changes; on life and death, on life’s choices and restrictions, on behavior and dress… oh, on everything of any import. I liked the book’s deep immersion in place and time. Fellowes has really excelled in highlighting the telling details and nuances that make the story set in the early Victorian period so believable. Women’s gowns, hair styles, house interiors, the London streets, the aristocratic titles, attitudes, thoughts, and so on are scrupulously spot-on and in exquisite detail. Belgravia is a rich, complex, engrossing story told very well.


Lynn Spencer:

the-hating-gameMy pick for 2016 is The Hating Game by Sally Thorne.  I’ve read plenty of books that I have enjoyed, but it has been quite a while since I have been so thoroughly charmed by anything I’ve read. This story made me laugh a lot, but it also struck a deeper chord with me that caused it to linger in my mind.


Emily Wittmann:

wolfsongHeading into December, I found it difficult to decide whether The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, or The Soldier’s Scoundrel, by Cat Sebastian was my favorite book of 2016.  I was sure nothing could top either book until I decided to read T. J. Klune’s Wolfsong, on a whim over Thanksgiving.  To say that I liked it is an understatement.   I loved it. Everything about it – the evolving relationship and romance between Ox and Joe, the shifter/paranormal elements, the dialogue, the love between family/pack, the conflict… Mr. Klune gets everything pitch perfect.  I spent all my free moments over the next few days flipping around and re-reading my favorite parts. I never do that.  Mr. Klune is particularly adept at dialogue; midway through the novel, Joe is courting Ox, and a visit with Ox’s mother is so awkward and hilarious, I laughed out loud.  And then read it again. And again.  Romantic, bittersweet, and wonderful, Wolfsong, is easily my favorite book of 2016.


Caroline Russomanno:

Finally, Jane Eyre gets the adaptation it deserves. This graphic novel is beautifully illustrated and faithful to the entire scope of Bronte’s huge original novel. Jane’s childhood isn’t rushed to make way for Rochester. Jane’s religiosity isn’t glossed over to “modernize” the story or emphasize the wrongness of St. John’s offer. BLANCHE INGRAM IS NOT BLONDE. Text from the novel is used to great effect. If you love Jane Eyre, this is a delightful new way to experience it, and I recommend it for first-time readers and English learners too.


Dabney Grinnan:

Honestly, I hate picking a single favorite. I love different books for different things. Mercy Brown’s Loud is How I Love You blew me away with its pitch perfect portrayal of the lives of musicians. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go made me gasp out loud in the way only a truly great suspense novel can. Sally Thorne’s debut The Hating Game has the best couple–who wouldn’t want to hang out with Lucy and Joshua?–and is remarkably witty to boot. Marrying Winterborne by the redoubtable Lisa Kleypas and A Duchess in Name by Amanda Weaver are superb historical romances with passionate love affairs beautifully grounded in a long ago time. I love them all and recommend each without reservation.

But, I must pick one and I’m going with Megan Crane’s Edge of Obsession. The book, the first in Ms. Crane’s Edge series, has it all: terrific world building, complex leads who are wonderfully far more than they first seem, sex scenes to heat up even the most moribund pulse, and a deeply satisfying love story. I’ve read it more than once and, each time, I am again impressed by the casual ease with which Ms. Crane creates a post-apocalyptic world rife with alliances, competing mythologies, and very sexy Vikings. I can’t wait for the fourth (and final?)  book in the series, Edge of Power, due out this March.


Sometime in January, we’ll be posting a round-up of all our choices and opening  it up to readers so you can let us know what are YOUR Best of 2016 books.  Keep an eye out for that in the next few weeks.




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