I started reviewing for AAR when I was pretty young – 18 years old, and still fairly new to the genre. My tastes have changed and evolved quite a bit in that time. Looking at my reviewer profile, which hasn’t been updated since I started, I am rather skeptical of my “favorites,” some of which I don’t even remember anymore. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about Hidden Fires by Sandra Brown, except that 6 years ago it was apparently one of my favorites.
My philosophy in choosing favorites is two-fold. One, my Top Ten should be more than a fleeting “books I’m enjoying now,” and therefore aren’t recent reads, or ones that I’ve read only once. Two, they should have something in them that would appeal beyond the romance. I think there is a subtle distinction between “books that a romance reader would enjoy” and “books non-romance readers would enjoy.” There are definitely some stories that I would recommend to fellow romance readers, but not anyone else. The best books are the ones that I think, “I could give this to a friend, and they would understand why I love romance novels.”
So, here we go: my top ten.
1. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This book is pretty much it for me. If I could only pick one book to read and reread for the rest of my life, it would probably be this one. I was hesitant to start it, for a couple reasons. One, it’s really, really long, and each of the sequels is really, really long. Two, I generally don’t like time-travel stories. But it came so highly recommended, I delved in. Outlander literally has everything: adventure, intelligence, strong writing, and, of course, a love story like no other.
2. Unveiled by Courtney Milan. I reread this book the other day, and I’m still reveling in how good it is. The characterization, relationship development, and weaving of the plot are flawless. There are so many complex and dynamic relationships in this novel – not just between the hero and heroine, but between their families as well. In a genre where authors must meld modern feminist sensibilities with the historical period’s gender roles, the most seductive part of Ash (and this book) is the essential message, you matter. You are important. That theme inspires one of the most understated romantic lines I’ve ever read: “The great benefit I see to marrying you is that I would be married to you.” Swoon.
3. Naked in Death by J. D. Robb. This gets on the list not because that book individually is one of my top ten books, but as a representative of the whole In Death series. As stand-alones, I don’t know that any of them would make it on to my list, but what appeals to me – and what has me still reading the books, 30-plus into the series – is also what appeals to me about the Outlander series: longevity. J. D. Robb didn’t stop once Eve and Roarke walked down the aisle and tell us they lived happily ever after. She stuck with them, and in doing so, has made theirs one of the most dynamic, realistic, and best relationships in romance. Apart from that, I’m continuously fascinated by the not-so-distant future that Ms. Robb created and I find myself thinking about it often, even when I’m not currently reading one of the books.
4. A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal by Meredith Duran. Meredith Duran is such an intelligent, skilled, and beautiful writer, and I’ve loved every book of hers that I’ve read – which is pretty much all of them. The reason I chose this one to represent in the Top 10 is because by taking a familiar plot – the Cinderella or My Fair Lady story – and doing it very, very well, Ms. Duran shows what a good romance writer can do. The criticism of the genre is often that it’s predictable, or that it’s always the same story. In this book, it is a familiar story but told with depth, rich characterizations, and honesty.
5. Three Nights with a Scoundrel by Tessa Dare. Who can resist a story about unrequited love? In this third book in a trilogy, our hero has been in love with the heroine for years, and she has no idea. The characters are interesting, flawed, and admirable, and as I noted in my DIK review, they have an intimacy and chemistry that goes beyond the sexual. No author will convince me of a HEA with sex, no matter how great it is. It’s the quiet scenes that make me believe, and this book has several very good ones.
6. Something About You by Julie James. Ms. James is one of my favorite contemporary writers. Her books are modern without being self-conscious about it. Something About You is one of my favorites, though, because it strikes a wonderful balance between suspense, romance, and humor. To top it off, the characters are both strong people with integrity who manage to get over the fact that they pissed each other off.
7. Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas. Lisa Kleypas was one of my favorite historical writers when I first started reading romance, and I know a lot of her fans were nervous when she announced she was going to write contemporary. Once I read Sugar Daddy, though, I knew I should have trusted her. Despite its sordid name and neon cover, this book has so much heart and depth. It has a strong element of Women’s Fiction, but the romance is as strong as Liberty’s personal development.
8. Forever a Lady by Delilah Marvelle. This book makes my list for many of the reasons that Three Nights with a Scoundrel did, even though they’re quite different books. Like Tessa Dare’s novel, I loved the small intimacies between Matthew and Bernadette, and thought his development as a character was wonderfully done. Ms. Marvelle also has elements of Meredith Duran in this book, with her dedication to the historical accuracy and acknowledgement of the poor. It’s easy to get swept away by the balls and gowns and elegant homes in historical romance, but there’s a lot more to history than the stories of the wealthy.
9. The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig. This is the only book on my list that I’ve only read once – and that’s because as soon as I read it, I needed to share it with someone and I lent it to a friend (who has yet to return it, grr). I’ve read Ms. Willig since her debut with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. I love her Pink Carnation series, and while the early ones hold a dear place in my heart, I’ve also enjoyed watching her writing evolve and sharpen from “historical chick lit” (albeit very, very good historical chick lit) to something like The Ashford Affair, which maintains her trademark wittiness and quick, layered dialogue, while delving into some darker subject matter and adding some bitter to the sweetness of a romance.
10. Shadowland by Meg Cabot. While not her most famous Young Adult series, The Mediator is by far my favorite (and this coming from someone who was a Meg Cabot fan-girl in high school). The Mediator series tells the story of a 16-year-old girl who moves to California and falls in love with the hot 1850s-era Spanish cowboy who haunts her bedroom. It is the later books (Haunted, the fifth, and Twilight, the sixth and last) that stand out in my head, but Shadowland is where it all started. Suze and Jesse remain the pinnacle of YA romance for me.
– Jane Granville