At the Back Fence Issue #294

February 18, 2008

From the Desk of Blythe Barnhill:

Staff’s Choice

I’ve been writing an annual column on my colleague’s choices for best romance since 2002, and it’s fun to watch how we and our choices evolve over time. Every year the story is a little different; we’ve had years of definitive winners, years when many reviewers couldn’t come up with a favorite, and years with very fragmented voting. 2007 proved to be one of the latter. One might even say that this is the most fragmented year ever. We’ve had years when the winner received three or four votes, and even a year when two three-vote books split the honors. But until now, we’ve never had a year where only one book got more than one vote. The winner received three votes – everyone else picked a different book. Though some staffers confessed that it wasn’t their best reading year ever, most of us had no trouble naming a winner – we just picked different winners. The good news for readers is that we can give you a wide variety of enthusiastic recommendations for books you may have missed. It is also worth noting that several staffers’ top choices appear elsewhere as runners up.

Rachel is one of our most enthusiastic YA fans, so it’s no surprise that her choice was a YA romance: Pant on Fire by Meg Cabot. Though she thought parts of it were a bit cliche, it still delivered in all the best ways: “Pretty much everything you think is going to happen…does. This is a quick and light book with a predictable plotline, but it’s so full of tension, delicious sexual tension that it hardly matters. About a third of the way in, things started feeling very familiar. I’ve definitely read this set-up before, but usually in a historical. The newly powerful hero done wrong returns to give the woman he loves a lesson and she can’t help being drawn to him anyway. Sound familiar to you too? Who cares. This is fun stuff. Make her pay, Tommy, make her pay. Make it hurt so good.”

Linda has always been a JAK fan, and in a year when DIKs were a bit thin on the ground for her, she found herself gravitating to her favorite comfort read author. Her choice for best book was Jayne Anne Krentz’s White Lies.

Jane G. also chose a contemporary romance as her top pick this year: Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas. However, she had some other strong contenders: “My favorite book of the year was Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas. I don’t own it (though I plan to remedy that soon), and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read it since it came out last March. I fell in love with all of the characters. They were vibrant and real. Some of the scenes in this book are among the most romantic I’ve read. I just can’t get enough of it, and I am very excited about the sequel coming out soon. Some other close follow-ups: both Creation and Innocence in Death by J.D. Robb, the Virgin River series by Robyn Carr, Tangled Up in You by Rachel Gibson, Mine Till Midnight by Lisa Kleypas, and To Catch a Cheat by Kelley St. John. I adored all of them, and have re- read all several times since they came out.”

Lee picked Anne Stuart’s Ice Storm: “I voted for Ice Storm by Anne Stuart. I’ve enjoyed all her books in this spy series and this equaled first one in the series, Black Ice. Runners up included A Hopeless Romantic by Harriet Evans, Beau Crusoe by Carla Kelly, A Diagnosis of Love by Maggie Lefler, If His Kiss is Wicked by Jo Goodman, and A Rather Lovely Inheritance by C.A. Belmond.”

Fellow Pollster Cindy also qualifies as a big Stuart fan, but she ended up casting her vote for Nalini Singh’s Caressed by Ice: “I’m an Anne Stuart fangirl so it’s not a big leap to see me loving Ice Blue and Ice Storm. My all-time favorite of this series is Cold As Ice because the heroine was so kick-ass. Ice Storm is a harder book to categorize. For readers who read and loved Nightfall then this book would be just right for them. Stuart makes Seraphin, the hero, almost beyond redemption. I think this is because we are privy to his private thoughts and this man can lie to himself like no other. It’s hard not to believe him when he says he doesn’t care. Meanwhile, Isobel is so compelling to watch. That all said it was Caressed by Ice by Nalini Singh that got my vote for best romance in 2007. I think in order to enjoy Singh’s books to the fullest you have to read from the beginning – Slave to Sensation. I loved each book in the series so far but Caressed by Ice was exactly what I was waiting for. The hero Judd, a Psy, and the wolf heroine Brenna, were introduced earlier and both of them caught my eye. Judd is the perfect hero for someone like me who likes her men dark. The world Singh creates has so many layers and just one of those is the physical vs. the cerebral. The interactions between Judd and Brenna can’t just happen in the physical plane but also on the mental and since Judd has been trained from birth to not have emotions, it is literally a land mine filled journey. I also like books to be ‘hot’ in sexual tension and even though there are only about two love scenes, watching these two strain at the bonds that keep them apart is what kept me reading.”

Teresa also went with a paranormal as her top choice: J.R. Ward’s Lover Revealed. It was a less than stellar year for her, with many others’ favorites (including books by Elizabeth Hoyt, Meljean Brook, and Robyn Carr) missing the mark: “So what did I actually like? I guess I’m slightly abashed to pick Lover Revealed as my best romance. I have enjoyed Ward’s books immensely, and thought this was a great entry in the series (much more so than the disappointing Lover Unbound). It feels a little like offering junk food as my best meal of the year, but there you go. I also really enjoyed Innocent in Death, but I think the romance parts are outweighed by the suspense and thriller parts and thus don’t feel it can be classified as best romance.

Kate C, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic fan of Meljean Brook, making Demon Angel her 2007 pick: “My top of the year was Demon Angel by Meljean Brooks. I was captivated by the story and characters in a way that I haven’t been (by a romance novel) in ages. I lost sleep, didn’t eat, ignored work commitments (yikes!) and lost touch with friends until I finished it. Luckily it only took 2 days! :) Runners up: And Then He Kissed Her from Laura Lee Guhrke (who doesn’t get the recognition she deserves), Passion for the Game from Sylvia Day (I just loved everything about this book – the premise was fantastic, so different for a Regency, dark and heavy and erotic and…..dammit, now I have to go re-read ) and Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Serpent Prince, which, IMHO, is the best of the trilogy.”


Ellen cheated a bit this year, choosing a trilogy of books by the same author (we let her get away with it, just this once). Robyn Carr’s Virgin River trilogy was her choice, but she chose several runners up as well: “The Billionaire Next Door by Jessica Bird (aka J.R. Ward) was one favorite. I think this was hands down the best series romance from last year. It had great characters, the story was moving and it left me wanting more more more. I can’t wait for the sequels – are you listening, Silhouette? When I heard Lisa Kleypas was going to write a contemporary novel, I was skeptical. Her historical romances are some of my favorites and I wondered if she’d have a good a voice in contemporary romance as she does in historical. She does. Sugar Daddy grabbed me from the beginning. Liberty Jones is such an engaging and likable heroine and this book takes her from adolescence to young womanhood. I think the romance between Gage Churchill and Liberty was a bit tepid as compared to Liberty’s own story, but I’m not going to complain too much. Next is Beau Crusoe by Carla Kelly. When it comes to her books, I am a total fan. No one, but no one is as good as she is. If I could, I’d have all her books in handprinted, leatherbound editions. My final runner-up is Lisa Marie Rice’s Dangerous Lover. It’s been a long time since I read a book with a good old fashioned alpha male who was not a jerk. Jack Prescott was as alpha as they come, but he was so vulnerable in his love for Caroline. It’s not too often I read a burning book that’s deeply romantic, but Lisa Marie Rice can do it. Now for the winner…I was just blown away by Robyn Carr’s Virgin River trilogy. All three of the books fit together so well – we get a full picture of a community. I read the trilogy three times during the year and it just got better and better each time. I loved the characters, the story, the setting – everything about these books was wonderful and the books fit together so well that I can’t single just one out. So the trilogy as a whole is my favorite.”

LinnieGayl also went with a contemporary romance, part of a series by Rachel Gibson: “My romance of the year was Rachel Gibson’s Tangled Up In You. My runners up were Fortune Quilt by Lani Rich and A Rather Lovely Inheritance by CA Belmond.

Jane J almost got a bit ahead of herself; she’s already found a 2008 book she loves. Her 2007 choice was Karen Rose’s Die for Me: “I was all set to declare Hot by Julia Harper (aka Elizabeth Hoyt) my best of the year but realized it was published on January 1, 2008! Can it still get a mention in case I don’t remember it a year from now? Having eliminated that one, Die for Me by Karen Rose was my favorite romance. This is an author who has only gotten better with each book and she’s one of the few who writes romantic suspense that is credible in both parts. The romance is believable and the suspense works with the relationship organically. Honorable mentions to a couple of fantasies that are heading towards great romances (as with Patricia Briggs). I loved Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews and Heart of Stone by C.E. Murphy – who knew you could make a gargoyle romantic?”

ATBF columnist Anne had a very tough time making her choice. Such a tough time, in fact, that she made the final call while I was writing the column: “I was going to vote for Sherri Erwin’s To Hell with Love, but I’m going to have to go with Robin D. Owens’ Heart Dance. Even though she uses cute world-building terms like ‘ResidenceDen’ and ‘softleaves.’ Come on! It’s a den and tissue paper. :-) Still, you have to give credit to a writer can make a villain out of an old woman who is in suspended animation.”

Rike, on the other hand, had no trouble picking a favorite. She chose an SF romance from Linnea Sinclair: “My favorite romance of 2007 is easily Games of Command by Linnea Sinclair. It’s the one book that I have picked up several times to reread favorite scenes. I adore its equally awkward and sexy hero and kick-ass heroine, I love the secondary couple and I really enjoy the furzels aka cats, although I am usually wary of cute animals in romances. My runners-up are Lessons of Desire by Madeline Hunter and Beau Crusoe by Carla Kelly. I am still speechless at what Madeline Hunter did with the heroine of Lessons of Desire, especially at the ending. She is a complex character, not easy to like, and Hunter has her give in to change, not always gracefully, but keeping her integrity as an person outside of society’s norms intact. In Beau Crusoe, I loved the crabs (really!) and the naturalists’ world and the narrator’s dry voice, especially during characters’ introspection. Such an unusual story and setting!”

Andi also went the paranormal route, choosing Colleen Gleason’s Rises the Night as her favorite: “I’m going to vote for Rises the Night by Colleen Gleason. I am really loving this series and I think that this second book is the strongest so far. But I had trouble choosing between this and Ice Storm, which was a thrilling, wonderful read. I’m going to be paying close attention to both of these authors.”

Sandy also loved Rises the Night (so much so that she’s working on an interview with the author right now!), but though she named it as a runner-up, her vote went to a late contender, Shana Abe’s Queen of Dragons: “What’s not to like about Regency Buffy? Colleen Gleason’s Rises the Night was a terrific second entry in this series and proof that sometimes a sequel really can be better than the original. I also enjoyed And Then He Kissed Her by Laura Lee Guhrke. Ms. Guhrke’s Girl Bachelor series featuring young Victorian-era working woman is an oh-so refreshing change from all those reluctant debutante stories that I for one am finding a bit of a stretch these days. And Then He Kissed Her was a delightful fantasy featuring even more delightful characters. I also really loved The Serpent Prince. Elizabeth Hoyt is a major new talent and I enjoyed this third entry in her trilogy more, quite honestly, than I did the first two. But for me, the book of the year came very late in 2007 — December 26th, to be exact. I continue to be awed by Shana Abe’s Drakon series and she hit it out of the park with Queen of Dragons. Her prose sings, her storytelling skills are astounding, and I loved this one almost as much as I enjoyed The Smoke Thief — and that is saying something!”

Heather was among those who considered 2007 to be a little lackluster, but she was able to zero in on a favorite romance – Mine Till Midnight by Lisa Kleypas.

(Incidentally, we have to give Kleypas major props for being the only author to get the top nod for two different books…in two different subgenres.)

“For me, 2007 wasn’t that great of a reading year. If I remember correctly, I think I voted for Mine Till Midnight as my favorite romance. Lisa Kleypas writes wonderful heroes, IMO. Strong, some “tormented” more than others, and (in the books that I’ve read by her) always willing to acknowledge their need for the heroine. Even though it’s classified as fiction, my favorite book of the year was The Wedding Officer. I enjoyed the setting, Naples, Italy, and the Italian heroine. The hero was young and naive and his characterization seemed so real and appropriate to me. Even though WWII wasn’t a romantic era/event, it was a very romantic story. “

Lynn’s favorite has already been mentioned by more than one reviewer as a runner up: Carla Kelly’s Beau Crusoe: “It’s hard to decide because I actually read a lot of good books this past year. My book of the year has to be Beau Crusoe, though. I love Carla Kelly’s characters and I found this story very moving. My runners-up: The Rest Falls Away and Rises the Night by Colleen Gleason – love this series. The premise is intriguing, and the writing style matches the story perfectly. High Plains Bride by Jenna Kernan – I’ll freely admit that this one is a little too stark in places to be for everyone, but I thought the writing was well-done and it’s getting my vote for favorite Western when I get around to voting in the poll.”

Laurie’s pick was also a runner-up favorite, Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Serpent Prince. She had a few strong contenders to choose from: “Ice Storm is one of three romances I loved from 2007. The other two were The Serpent Prince and The Secret Passion of Simon Blackwell. I could easily have voted for any of these three, but I thought The Serpent Prince had wider appeal, and for once in my life I wanted to vote for a possible winner of Best Romance in our annual reader poll. To me the last two pages of Ice Storm almost knocked it out of the park for me, but Anne Stuart, where her romantic suspense is concerned, doesn’t have the reader appeal she deserves. And I couldn’t choose Secret Passion either because it got beat up so much on the forums that I knew it didn’t stand a chance. All three books earned votes from me on my ballot, but in the end, I went with The Serpent Prince in the ‘best romance’ category. It’s a terrific book, with powerful characters and a great romance, so it’s really a win-win situation.”

Last year I was so undecided I actually made up my mind while writing the column, but this year is an entirely different story; I’ve known what my pick would be for some time: Innocent in Death by J.D. Robb. I’ve yet to read most of the other staffers choices this year. Why? Because I went on a year long In Death re-reading binge, inspired by my absolute awe of Innocent in Death. Not only have I reread it several times, it has actually stayed on my nightstand all year so I can reread favorite parts, which is totally unprecedented for me. The mystery was riveting and edgy, but what utterly captivated me was the turn in Eve and Roarke’s relationship. Robb continues to develop Eve and Roarke’s marriage in a thoroughly convincing way, book after book. Some are better than others, though, and this is one of the absolute best. My only runner up is the oft-mentioned Beau Crusoe, which I found refreshing and romantic. I never tire of Carla Kelly’s unique voice.

Single choices aside, we do have a winner, which was chosen by three of our staff: Jo Goodman’s If His Kiss is Wicked. Joan, Lisa, and Cheryl all gave it top honors. Here’s what Lisa had to say: “I’m going to sound like a broken record, but JG’s If His Kiss is Wicked (God, I hate that title!) was simply one of the best mainstream romances I’ve ever read. Hands down for my 2007 pick I want to give a nod to Jessica Bird’s A Man in a Million and Karen Rose’s Die for Me. Not only were they both superb, they took me out of my comfort zones. I don’t do RS or category normally. I’ve given in to RS a lot more attention lately and have enjoyed it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get into category, though.”

…and from Cheryl: “I usually average 10 DIKs a year, but this year I only had 6. Out of those, I listed If His Kiss is Wicked by Jo Goodman as Best Romance. I’m a sucker for Beta men and Jo Goodman writes some very nice ones who are perfect for her tortured heroines. Restell is a caretaker, a nurturer while still being manly and sexy as all get out, and Emma is tortured but works hard to overcome her demons and doesn’t wallow in them like too many do. My other 5 DIKs were Beau Crusoe, And Then He Kissed Her, Innocent in Death, Never Deceive a Duke (Liz Carlyle), and Mine Till Midnight.”

After reading about everyone’s favorites, I feel a sudden, urgent desire to visit the bookstore tomorrow. If you’ve missed some of these, you may be similarly inclined. Are our favorites already your favorites? We’ll find out March 3rd when the poll results are revealed.

Blythe Barnhill

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