I put off writing my top ten until the last possible moment for a variety of reasons. I wanted some time to think about it, but I knew even though I had lots of time I’d still be making choices at the last minute; it’s not unusual for me to make my Reviewer’s Choice top pick while I’m writing the column. I also decided my top seven fairly easily, and then got stuck on the final three. I agonized over which three deserved the final honors, and then ended up with some also rans. I’ve been reading romance for a long time, and that presented its own problems. Should I choose early, sentimental favorites, or more of the quality Johnny come lately offerings? Well, in reverse order, here’s my top ten (ish).
Also rans: Just for fun, my books that didn’t quite make the short list but almost did: Paradise by Judith McNaught (overwrought in all the best early 90s ways, and my favorite of all her books). Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn – the popular favorite of her Bridgerton books, and my favorite as well. In the obscure category, Dana Ransom’s Wild Texas Bride or any of the books from her Bass series. You want a good western? These are the real deal. Ditto for Maggie Osbourne’s I Do, I Do, I Do, which has the added bonus of being a wagon train story, a particular weakness of mine. Susan Elizabeth Phillips Nobody’s Baby But Mine (and yes, I know the heroine was manipulative and dishonest. No, I don’t care). And old Signet regencies by Diane Farr and Elisabeth Fairchild – just in general.
10. Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran – For me, this book ushered in a rebirth of good – really good – historical romance. Suddenly, for the first time in years, historical romance was more than just okay. Someone was doing something besides drinking the weak lemonade at Almack’s and almost having sex in a gazebo (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and trying (unsuccessfully) to be just like Julia Quinn. Instead, it’s full of action, intrigue, and bonafide romance. Wicked Becomes You is very nearly as good, or maybe better; I almost picked that one.
9. Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase – It’s romance heresy to say it about the book that has time and again been voted the best of the best here (and quite possibly could be voted best again), but I traded Lord of Scoundrels back to the used book store when I read it in the mid-nineties. Someday maybe I’ll give it another shot. But I have no such reservations about Mr. Impossible. Daphne. Rupert. Egypt. But mostly Rupert.
8. With This Ring by Carla Kelly I had a tough time picking just one Carla Kelly, because I am almost never disappointed when I open one of her books. I weighed my options: Marrying the Captain.The Wedding Journey. Reforming Lord Ragsdale. All of them are fabulous. But With This Ring was my first one, and I can’t ever forget that thrill of discovery. Her style is utterly unique in romance, and her characters are most likely to be ordinary people who find enduring love. That’s not just romance; it’s hope.
7. Born in Fire by Nora Roberts – This is another oldie but goodie from early in my romance reading career, and I read the series backwards, which proved to be no hindrance to my enjoyment. The Born In trilogy is strong as a whole, and this is the best book in it. It’s set in Ireland with Maggie – a fiery heroine – and Rogan, a confident hero who knows exactly what he wants. He loves Maggie for her fire. And did I mention it’s set in Ireland?
6. Over the Edge by Suzanne Brockmann – for me, this is the quintessential Brockmann book. It has everything, and I mean that almost literally. It was in the early days of the Troubleshooters series when the books had those fantastic World War II plots. It has Stan and Terry – the primary couple. And it has Sam and Alyssa. Oh, does it have Sam and Alyssa. The entire Brockmann fandom seemed to deteriorate after this book, with people annoyed about the Sam and Alyssa plot stretching out, and then annoyed about Sophia and Decker, among other things. But this was before that, and I liked that the Sam and Alyssa story stretched out over several books. I liked that the whole thing was full of action, danger (real, believable danger), hot sex, and good guy speak. It’s Brockmann at her best.
5. The Notorious Rake by Mary Balogh – I almost want to tell people that if they read only one traditional Regency, this should be the one. The only problem with that is that it’s nothing like most traditional Regencies. It starts with a rather prim heroine who is trapped with the hero, a man she hardly knows and who is hardly heroic – during a storm. She is utterly terrified of storms, and has sex with him while in the throes of her abject terror. He should never be the right one for her; he’s a complete and utter reprobate and a screw up. But wanting her makes him a better man, and at the end he offers the best proposal I have ever read in a romance novel.
4. Shattered Rainbows by Mary Jo Putney – for a very long time, this was my absolute favorite romance novel. It’s still pretty high up there. It has a plot that I adore – the heroine falls in love with the right man while she’s married to the wrong one. I have no idea why I love this plot, I just do. It might have something to do with it being a tough conflict to fight your way out of honorably. In any case, the Fallen Angels series, of which this is a part, is Putney at her absolute writing best. They are all good books, and this is the best of them. Fabulous writing, sigh worthy lovers, and a Peninsular War backdrop. It’s pretty much perfect.
3. Innocent in Death by J.D. Robb – This is arguably my oddest choice. The best way to explain it might be to out myself as a fan of So You Think You Can Dance. (Yes, it’s cheesy, and Mary Murphy is kind of annoying. I like it anyway.) During the show before the finale, one of the soon-to-be-winners, Fik-Shun, said, “I might not be America’s best dancer, but maybe I can be America’s favorite dancer.” I was impressed that he appreciated the difference. Innocent in Death is not the best J.D. Robb book, but it’s my favorite J.D. Robb book. It’s never left my nightstand since I first read it. I reread it all the time, and I am not a frequent re-reader. The only other book I re-read regularly is my #1. Why do I love it? It’s the marriage in trouble plot. Eve and Roarke aren’t in trouble, precisely, but a vicious, scheming woman has determined to come between them, and Roarke can’t quite manage to see her for what she is. I love watching them work this out, and I love that the other woman gets punched in the face at the end. My favorite line: Eve: Red dress. Roarke: Fuck. No, I can’t really explain that either. Oh, and it has her absolute creepiest killer, but that’s almost beside the point.
2. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon – I know, I know. Some say it isn’t a romance novel. But it’s full of romance, intrigue, and everything else I ever want to see in a book. It’s been nineteen years and I still remember the thrill of reading it – and how I didn’t want to do anything else at all, or want the book to end. All these years later, I’m still reading and enjoying the series, even though it’s twisted and turned so much that I have trouble remembering who is who between books. I like the twists, turns, and tangents of the later books, but nothing can compare to the thrill of meeting Jamie and Claire for the first time and immersing myself in Jacobite Scotland.
1. Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh – I hope if I’m ever on that Desert Island, I can take a hundred romances. But if I can only take one, this is it. The whole Bedwyn series leads up to Slightly Dangerous, positioning Wulfric Bedwyn as a cold, haughty aristocrat who has been engineering his siblings matches behind the scenes. Balogh matches him with the unlikeliest of heroines. Christine is a lively widow of no fortune who always seems to be doing the wrong thing, and always gets noticed doing it. Their romance is an absolute, utter joy. It’s a little shocking at times, in all the best ways, with a subplot involving Christine that I never would have expected the first time I read it. I love the whole thing, with the haughty Wulf and his quizzing glass, the interfering Bedwyn siblings who love him and embrace Christine, and the hard earned epilogue and last line.
– Blythe Barnhill