Everybody has had so many interesting ideas for how to choose a top ten – breaking down by genre, assuming “pocket copies” of classics, choosing only books which haven’t been listed by other bloggers – so I apologize for using yet another methodology. I’ve chosen books which were so good that I have or would recommend them to non-romance readers. These are books which, in my opinion, stand as books, enjoyable and even lovable by people who will cut them no slack for genre conventions. I hope you love them as well!
Again – Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Again is a true buried treasure: an A grade here at AAR and my personal pick for single best romance ever, and yet it isn’t even in print. Seidel transports you into the meticulously researched world of a historical soap opera called My Lady’s Chamber (think Downton Abbey, but Regency), written by Jenny Cotton and starring Alec Cameron. I love Alec, a natural leader unable to ignore the problems at work causing Jenny distress (boy, could my workplace use a man like that!). Jenny is creative, intelligent, and gifted at her job. It is fascinating to watch Jenny’s real-life relationships play out in her characters. When one of her soap characters does something wonderful, and you realize that on some level Jenny’s falling for Alec… it’s just magic.
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Austen is fine, but my all-time favorite “classic” romance is Jane Eyre, hands down. Bronte’s an incredible writer, and Jane’s a fully-realized character I’d love to know in real life. She has an entertaining snarky streak and a lifelong struggle to control it (as a young girl cautioned that naughty children go to hell, Jane pragmatically decides that her best course of action is to “keep in good health, and not die.”) She meets her match in Rochester, whose dark, sarcastic humor is far more compelling to me than a dozen brooding grumps. The romance is the most famous part of the story, but I also love watching Jane and Rochester grow. By the end of the story, she’s ready to meet Rochester as an equal – the best kind of HEA.
Welcome to Temptation – Jennifer Crusie
This book makes my list because it’s funny as heck, but it never forces the cast to break character to create that humor. Sophie Dempsey is trying to break with her family’s con past, but her sister’s plot to make a porn film throws Sophie into conflict with Temptation’s mayor, Phin Tucker. The two have ridiculous chemistry: Sophie can’t resist the right-side-of-the-tracks “town boy” who represents everybody who’s ever screwed over people like her, and Phin can’t keep away from the woman with the unforgettable discovery fantasy – not even when a dead body turns up. For the dysfunctional workings of a ridiculous small-town city council, for the movie Hot Fleshy Thighs, and for the best, most true-to-character sex scenes I’ve ever read, Welcome to Temptation makes the list.
Games of Command – Linnea Sinclair
This is the most recent read on my list, but I loved it so much that it shot up the charts. In addition to a sci-fi setting, which I’m partial to, this book has one of my favorite tropes: a hero desperately in love with the heroine but unable to speak or act on it. Admiral Branden Kel-Paten is a biocybe, a human with computer and machine augmentation, and the emotions he’s not supposed to feel for Captain Tasha Sebastian are enough to get him reprogrammed. He hides them so well that Tasha has no idea why he’s always over her shoulder. Her boggled reaction to the reveal actually made me set the book down for an “Awwww!” moment. Add in the interesting, original action-adventure plot, and you have a great top-10 read.
More than a Mistress – Mary Balogh
Regencies are full of of heroes who offer the heroines carte blanche and heroines, even thoroughly compromised ones, who earn their HEAs by refusing until the heroes return with a better offer. Balogh was the first author I read who allowed her heroines made the “wrong” decision. I love the fact that the protagonists, Jane and Jocelyn, solidify their relationship while Jane is acting as mistress – how revolutionary to imply that the mistress relationship allowed Jane and Jocelyn to find their HEA! I truly believed in the cozy, comfortable home they created together, and although I was delighted when they “put a ring on it,” it was just because I wanted their future to be easier. Balogh convinced me that the two of them had won regardless.
One Good Turn – Carla Kelly
I suspect that when it comes to Top 100 polling, Carla Kelly suffers from having a general outstanding backlist rather than the one knockout book which everyone has read. I wanted to start a campaign wherein all Carla Kelly fans agree to vote for the same book so we can finally get her back on the list. Then Lee put Miss Whittier Makes A List on her Top 10, which is a great book, but I had known since I started planning this list that I’d have to pick One Good Turn. I guess we’ll just have to push for two Kelly titles!
The sequel to Libby’s London Merchant, One Good Turn is a Regency which features the rejected hero from that book and my pick for strongest romance heroine, Liria Valencia. In the interest of not spoiling Libby, I’ll be general here. There is nothing, simply nothing, like watching resilient Liria rise from the ashes of her previous life and transform the hero through her own dignity and quiet strength. Her response to the question of why she kept her son, a product of rape, is one of the few lines of romance novel dialogue which ever made me cry. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Mr. Impossible – Loretta Chase
This book previously appeared on Heather’s Top 10, but since it still meets my criteria I kept it anyway. While I’ve come pretty conspicuously out of the Kelly fangirl closet, I’m actually not generally a Chase fan. This is the only Chase book I’ve ever kept, and I did it for the same reason Heather did: I love Rupert and Daphne, the English odd couple forced to team up for an adventure story in 1820s Egypt. More to the point, I love Rupert, who matches Daphne’s intellectual intelligence with his own firecracker mix of street smarts, people smarts, and esoteric academic knowledge. If the Scarlet Pimpernel and Miles Vorkosigan had a baby, it might act something like Rupert Carsington. If that weird image isn’t enough to make you want to try this book, I have no idea what it will take!
It Had To Be You – Susan Elizabeth Phillips
“I guess we’re oil and water.” “I’d say we’re more like gasoline and a blowtorch.” It Had To Be You set my standard for how smart and sexy contemporary romantic comedy could be. There’s no better love/hate romance than Phoebe Somerville, the bombshell blonde who inherits her father’s NFL team, and Dan Calebow, the coach who can’t believe he’s going to have to work for her. I love watching Phoebe come into her own, learning to show off her brains as well as her bust, and discovering that in spite of her expectations, she can live up to her looks in bed – with Dan, of course. Dan, who seems at first like he might be an 80s jerk hero, learns to respect Phoebe, and even finds a soft spot for her ridiculous little dog Pooh.
Anna and the French Kiss – Stephanie Perkins
It is so hard to find a YA story which avoids wallowing in melodrama but still manages to tell a story which is true to the teen experience (which, to be completely honest, tends to melodrama!). American Anna is sent to Paris for her senior year at boarding school, where she discovers the joys and pains of expat life and falls like a rock for the gorgeous Etienne St. Clair. This book is a bit of everything – a fish-out-of-water story, a coming-of-age story, and a lovely and credible teen romance, all set against the detailed, well-researched backdrop of the City of Lights.
My Fair Concubine – Jeannie Lin
Number ten… number ten… argh! How to fill the last slot on a list like this? I have so many authors I haven’t fit in yet, so let me at least take a moment to blabber out some of the books I considered for this final spot: Patricia Potter’s Notorious, Sherry Thomas’s Ravishing the Heiress, Karyn Langhorne’s Unfinished Business, Judy Cuevas’s Dance, and Suzanne Brockmann’s Heart Throb.
I finally settled on My Fair Concubine because it’s the book I would recommend to shatter numerous romance stereotypes. It’s a Harlequin category, which to most people means dukes and billionaires, with the closest thing to “diversity” being the occasional Greek, Italian, or sheikh. It still entertains me to walk down the Harlequin Historicals aisle and see “Regency,” “Western,” “Medieval,” and then all of a sudden “Chinese Tang Dynasty.” Thank goodness for the editor who took a chance on Jeannie Lin!
My Fair Concubine is a Pygmalion story about a Chinese nobleman, Fei Long, who makes over the tea shop girl Yan Ling as a substitute “princess” for a marriage alliance with foreign warlords. In an an industry full of wallpaper romances and modern characters in historicals, Lin’s books stand out for having characters who don’t think or talk like the cast of Friends. Since both Yan Ling and I knew about the same amount of Chinese court etiquette, I enjoyed learning alongside her. And I’m always a sucker for romances in which the heroes fall for the heroines but have to hold themselves back.
So those are my top ten romances. What do you think? Do you like any of them for reasons I haven’t listed here, or do you hate any of them and think I’m nuts? Please let me know in the comments!
– Caroline Russomanno