Normally, the question “what’s your favourite book/piece of music/film?” is one that’s likely to turn me into a jibbering idiot and turn my mind completely blank. I mean really – just one favourite? And in any case, it usually depends on my mood on any one day. One day might demand Mozart and the next, Mahler. Or I’ll be in the mood for Die Hard one evening and Wall-E the evening after. By that token, if my choices tend to be mood dependent, how was I going to produce a list of titles that wasn’t going to change from day-to-day? So I decided the first thing I needed to do was to decide on the benchmark qualities I look for in a book that would qualify it for a place in my Top Ten.
Anyone that knows me knows I’m a bit of a stickler for good spelling and grammar, and for writing that displays at least a basic grasp of good sentence construction and logic. But those things should be a given in any good book, so they should be taken as read. So, was my criteria to be based on good writing or an unusual storyline; good characterisation or a talent for sparkling dialogue?
Eventually, I realised I was leaning more and more towards one particular thing – how did the book make me feel? I read romance novels because I enjoy becoming invested in the characters and their stories, so my list is based very much on my emotional response to each title. Did it make me laugh and/or cry? Was it one of those books that, as I finished the final page, made me feel emotionally drained (in a good way)? Did I finish it on a high? Was it the sort of book that makes it hard to get into another one for a day or so?
I – on reflection, stupidly – had the idea that choosing a Top Ten might be a simpler matter for me than for some of my fellow reviewers, principally because I’m not as widely read across the different sub-genres. I got hooked on Historical Fiction at the age of eleven or twelve and that love of times past has never left me, so about 99.99% of what I read in the genre is Historical Romance. Oh, I’ve dabbled with the odd Contemporary, but I still prefer the extra level of escapism, if you will, allowed by chronological distance; from the danger of the political intrigue of the 16th Century to the strict adherence to convention of the 19th – and thinking of the men in their tight breeches doesn’t hurt either!
Some of my colleagues have also said that there are one or two titles that haven’t made their lists because they should be a “given” – be it Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. And that reminded me of the way Desert Island Discs works. For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, it’s a long running weekly radio programme in which a different celebrity is interviewed and asked to pick the eight pieces of music they’d like to have with them in the event they become stranded on – yep, that’s it – a desert island. As well as their eight choices, they’re allowed one luxury, a copy of the Bible (or holy book of choice) and the Complete Works of Shakespeare.
Applying a similar set of rules to my Top Ten means that instead of the Shakespeare, I’d like Lord of Scoundrels and Flowers from the Storm. No romance library is complete without either, IMO. But as it’s unlikely I’d be allowed to take David Tennant with me, I’d have to forego the luxury ;-)
Of course, selecting my Top Ten Historical Romances hasn’t turned out to be especially easy and I’ll probably be changing my mind right up until the last minute. But here – in no particular order – is a list of those books that I really couldn’t do without.
1. A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley – You know how, sometimes, you see or read or listen to something that really makes an impression on you? So much so that it stays with you long after you first encountered it? Back in 1985/6, I picked up a book – completely randomly, and because I thought it sounded interesting – by a British author called Stella Riley. It was a mixture of Historical Romance and Historical Fiction, and was set during the English Civil war. Ms Riley wrote a handful of books in the 80s and 90s, and I could quite easily have put all of them on this list. A Splendid Defiance is the first book of hers I read, and it’s one of those stories that has never left me. Set during the latter part of the English Civil War, it tells the true story of the siege of Banbury and the fictional story of a romance between people on opposite sides of the divide – Justin Ambrose, the acerbic Captain in the Royalist army and Abigail Radford, the sister of a local die-hard Puritan with whom he falls in love. It’s impeccably researched, dramatic, funny and tender; I fell head-over-heels in love with the hero and have stayed there ever since.
2. Venetia by Georgette Heyer – It would have been easy to find at least half-a-dozen Heyer titles to grace my list, but Venetia has always been my favourite. It’s a wonderfully “autumnal” story that never fails to enchant me and the characterisation of Damerel in particular is superb. So many heroes in today’s novels are described as “rakes” and “wicked” without really being so, but Damerel trulydoes deserve his reputation and there’s a real sense about him that he’s given up and feels he’s unworthy of redemption. There’s no question that this is his last chance at turning his life around, and Heyer’s wonderful writing allows the reader to see in him what Venetia sees – a kind and charming man whose youthful indiscretions haunt him, and whose lack of self-esteem has led him to live the life he feels is all he deserves. While Venetia is lovely on the inside as well as the outside, she feels she’s on the shelf, so in a sense Damerel is her ‘last chance’, too and I utterly adore the way these two people give each other so much without expecting anything in return. Venetia has no illusions and loves Damerel in spite of his faults. She gives him back his self-respect with her no-nonsense approach and in return, he gives her a shoulder to cry on and the love and support she’s been without for so long and probably thought she no longer needed.
3. The Rake by Mary Jo Putney – Like Damerel, Reggie Davenport thoroughly deserves his wicked reputation. I think that Putney’s portrait of a man whose lifestyle is literally killing him is brilliantly observed and one that is still quite unique in the genre. Reggie could have been a difficult character to like, but Putney shows us so many different facets of his character – good and bad – that he engaged me almost immediately. He’s got a hell of a temper, and his lapses are truly heart-breaking, yet watching him struggle to turn his life around is truly uplifting. The romance between Reggie and Alys is beautifully done, and grows out of friendship and mutual respect, rather than the “insta-lust” that seems to occur in so many romances these days.
4. The Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas – Sebastian St. Vincent is yet another bad boy – although in his case, his wicked reputation is founded principally on his womanising rather than a penchant for any other vices. I like the way that Kleypas merely hints at the reasons which have caused him to disclaim any finer feelings and regard himself as severely beyond the pale. She doesn’t feel the need to hit us over the head with the fact of his family tragedy or his loneliness, just provides the odd hint and lets the reader work it out. But the way he takes care of Evie so tenderly right from the start shows immediately that he is nowhere as black as he would have society think; and it’s that quality in him for care-giving that is one of his most attractive traits. I’m a total sucker for a character who is hiding their true nature behind some sort of defensive charade, and Sebastian fits that bill 110%! His relationship with Evie is absolutely beautiful, and while the romance is the focus of the story, there’s also the parallel one about a man finally finding a purpose and regaining his self-respect. This is one of those books where, although my head tells me it’s not perfect, my heart tells my head to shut up because Sebastian and Evie are so bloody adorable together; and because the way Kleypas redeems the self-centred, promiscuous, amoral viscount of It Happened one Autumn is masterful. If I had to name the book I’d re-read most in the last few months, this would probably be it.
5. A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant – Immediately I finished it, my reaction to this book was “wow!” Not just because the writing was of such high quality and intelligence, but because the premise was quite unusual. There have been a few stories published recently about a man in need of an heir who pays a younger man to impregnate his wife, but ALA turns the premise around and instead gives us a respectable, newly widowed lady who takes a huge risk by approaching her new neighbour with an unconventional proposal. She will pay him for having sex with her in the hope of conceiving a child that she can then present as her dead husband’s heir. The thing is, that she does not just want security for herself. She wants to be able to continue to care for her tenants and to carry out her plans for opening a school for the local children, all things she knows that her brother in law will not care about. The sex scenes were initially awkward and about as un-erotic as anything I’ve ever read; and I liked the later use of them as a kind of indicator of the state of Theo and Martha’s relationship. As their friendship and mutual understanding grew, the sex got better. Theo began to understand and then to enjoy his position as a landowner and started to take his responsibilities seriously, and Martha began to see that there was more to life than duty.
6.Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran – This was another of those books that had the “wow!” factor for me. The writing was amazing and even more importantly the characterisation was stunning. It’s been a while since I read it last, but I still remember being bowled over with the depth and intensity with which Ms Duran imbued Sanburne – I could feel his self-hatred and despair and at the same time adore his wit, charm and fierce intellligence. Lydia took a while to grow on me, I admit, but her prickliness and ability to stand toe-to-toe with James showed so clearly that she’s his perfect match that they quickly became one of my favourite couples in the genre. This one is long overdue for a re-read.
7. The Christmas Spirit by Elizabeth Fairchild – I don’t think I’ve ever had such an emotional reaction to a novel as I did to this one. The Christmas Spirit is a beautifully written, heart-breaking but uplifting story, that, while definitely romantic isn’t a traditional romance in the boy-meets-girl; boy-and-girl-live happily ever after mould. A dying man in his thirties encounters a beautiful and mysterious young woman at Christmas in a story about love and forgiveness that is atmospheric and gloriously romantic. The language is lyrical and sensual – the sexual tension leaps off the page (although there are no explicit sex scenes) and I don’t mind admitting that it moved me to tears on more than one occasion.
8. The Quickenberry Tree by Annette Motley – I’m afraid this title has been out of print for some time, but used copies seem to be reasonably easy to come by (in the UK at least). This is by another favourite author from the 1980s who seems to have disappeared and who I’d love to see her books made available electronically. The Quickenberry Tree is a ‘family saga’ set in the seventeenth century, again around the time of the English Civil War, and in it, we follow the lives and loves of the Heron family over the course of several years. The heroine – Lucy – is little more than a girl at the start of the novel, but attracts the attention of the hero, Will Staunton, who is several years older and a family friend. He’s got a bit of a reputation with the ladies, but is content to wait for Lucy to grow up a bit and fulfil the promise he can see in her before making any moves ;-) Theirs is the central romance of the story and a stormy one it proves to be as both Will and Lucy are such strong characters. It’s a long book (around 700 pages in paperback) but is very well-researched, with plenty of memorable characters and is superbly well-written across a broad canvas.
9. For the Love of a Soldier by Victoria Morgan – This recent début had me riveted pretty much from start to finish. And that’s saying something considering it – albeit briefly – contains one of my least favourite tropes. The characterisation was excellent and even though the story touched on some very difficult subjects – the hero had returned from the Crimea having lived through some utterly horrific experiences, for example – the book contains some of the best, wittiest dialogue I’ve read in quite some time. The historical detail is very well-researched and skilfully incorporated into the storyline, and the sexual tension between the hero and heroine just leaps off the page.
10. The Bridegroom Wore Plaid by Grace Burrowes – I couldn’t make a list of my top ten romances without including something by Grace Burrowes; but the problem was which book to choose, because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything of hers I’ve read so far. She has an incredible way with writing real and deep emotion and while I can appreciate that the high angst-quotient in many of her books might not be for everyone, I don’t object to having my heart ripped out and stomped on once or twice provided I know there’s an HEA around the corner! I chose Bridegroom principally because I remember my reaction to it so vividly. The story of the impoverished Scottish Earl who is so desperate to provide for his family and the dependents who inhabit his estate that he would consign himself to a life of misery with a woman who can never understand him got me “right there”. The romance which develops between Ian MacGregor and Augusta Merrick is beautifully written and heartbreaking as they each realise they have found their soulmate but are unable to be together because she’s even poorer than he is.
– Caz Owens