It’s that time of the year – when we get to celebrate our favorites and do nothing but gush. As usual, everyone picks one favorite (but can also mention their favorite runners up).

This year is similar to last in a few ways: Historicals seem to be carrying the day for many of us, and there isn’t a lot of consensus. Only two books received more than one top nod, and our winner  received only three. Though a majority are historicals, our choices include some paranormals, Urban Fantasy, and YA. Here are the books that had us sighing with pleasure and turning pages into the night in 2011:

Louise: The best books that I read this year were not 2011 books, so I had trouble with both the poll and this question.  I guess if I was going to name the best 2011 book that I read there would give a slight edge to Jamie MacGuire’s Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire – a great story about two people who are both scarred from their pasts and who become something of a train wreck as a couple until they learn to work things out and realize how much better they are together than apart.

I also loved Dragon Bound by Thea Harrison – an all around great book – clever, funny, steamy, romantic, plus a great starting place for a new series.  I guess a third choice would be Spellweaver by Lynn Kurland because as a fan of the series, this book was one I anxiously waited for and thoroughly enjoyed.  It is hard to place it on a “best book” list, though, because it is really part two of three and the story wasn’t complete until the third part.

Bessie: I haven’t been reading a lot of straight romance.  This year has been catching up with some series of urban fantasy.  The new series that was the most fun is by Kevin Hearne –The Iron Druid Chronicles. Atticus is a 2000 year old druid who looks like a 20-something slacker.  He runs an occult bookshop in Arizona and lives with his Irish wolfhound Oberon.  They share and psychic bond and have some hilarious conversations.  The first three titles were all published in 2011: Hounded, Hexed and Hammered.  Number 4 is coming out this spring: Tricked. The other series that I zipped through was the Cal and Niko Leandros series by Rob Thurman. Blackout came out in 2011.

Heather S: Admittedly I did not read a ton of 2011 releases as I have been desperately trying to whittle down my TBR pile. And many of the new releases I did read ended up being disappointments. One that exceeded my expectations was Dreams of a Dark Warrior by Kresley Cole. It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the Immortals After Dark series, but I was not looking forward to this one. A hero that has captured and tortured the heroine? Not sexy in my book. But as the story unfolded and we got inside Declan Chase’s head I not only softened but fell in love with him. Regin the Radiant has long been a favorite character of mine with her silly practical jokes and frat-boy humor so I didn’t think I would love this pairing. I thought Cole did a tremendous job of redeeming Declan and making him the perfect foil for Regin.

I have to also mention J R Ward’s Envy as being a favorite of mine. Her Black Dagger Brotherhood series fell out of favor with me some time ago, but I adore the Fallen Angel series. With a deliciously tortured hero and a unique cast of characters involved in a good versus evil battle, I could not tear myself away.

Wendy: My favorite this year was Magic Slays by Ilona Andrews, which beat A Night to Surrender by Tessa Dare by only a slim margin. What makes them stand out over the rest of my reading this year was the sense of tenderness and connection between the leads. Both books made me laugh, I love the H/H in each, and both were superbly written. But I’m a Curran fangirl and his offer to Kate Daniels near the end of Magic Slays is one of my favorite romance moments ever.

Lea: In both print and audio, my favorite 2012 romance book is Karen Marie Moning’s Shadowfever.  As the fifth and final in the Fever series, Moning drew the anticipation to such a fevered pitch that fans were panting for this book.  Not knowing the identity of the hero or even if there would be an HEA made the wait all the more intense.  Mysteries from previous books are slowly revealed as the reader is allowed to see known characters in a whole new light. Shadowfever entertained and enthralled and delivered one of the best endings this romance reader could have hoped for.  It should come as no surprise that I’m partial to the audio version.  Outstanding dual narration from Natalie Ross and Phil Gigante put this one over the top as my favorite read/listen of the year. Runner-ups are Kristin Higgins’ My One and Only and Ellen O’Connell’s Dancing on Coals. My One and Only is a well executed character driven contemporary that left me wanting more of this type writing while Dancing on Coals is a gritty Western/American Indian tale that far surpasses what we usually see in this category of romances.

Rike: The book I liked best this year was Reconcilable Differences by Elizabeth Ashtree. I loved that the protagonists were real people with real problems, and I loved that the differences between them (including political attitudes) were obvious and yet no hindrance to the romance, because in what counted they were alike. I also liked The Orchid Affair by Lauren Willig for the very same reason, although in historical disguise. Another runner-up is Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook because of the adventure and fabulous world-building.

Dabney: My vote goes to Julie Anne Long’s What I Did for a Duke. Ms. Long is a first-rate writer and her use of language is superb and, in this book, she’s also very funny. She takes the standard plot of a rake and a maiden and turns it into something new and marvelous. Everything in the novel works beautifully.

Pat: Oh, my!  So I must pick which of my bests is the best? Well, as I said for the poll:

Sweet as Sin by Inez Kelly is my favorite 2011 romance.  I dare anyone to sit dry-eyed through the scene where the illustrator/writer hero draws a dragon for a potentially terminally ill teen and explains how the dragon will keep her strong.  The writer has had a miserable childhood and is giving back to other kids whose lives are tainted by abusive parents, disease, or other horror.  The story of how he sheds his past and accepts love is unbelievably touching and moving.

Runners up:
Quinn’s Need by SJD Peterson is a gay erotica novel that made me care about an unsympathetic main character which is very, very difficult to do.  Oddly enough, even though Quinn finally accepts who and what he is, there’s no happy ending in this book which was a very honest way to leave Quinn and Loran.

Summer at Seaside Cove by Jacquie D’Alessandro was a little over the top when the protagonist’s mother and sister descended on her mid-book, but the honestly conflicted hero was wonderful as was his love interest, the protagonist.  The small-town atmosphere wasn’t cloying like some of the women’s fiction books present it, but was soothing like the ocean-side setting.

Kaki Warner’s Heartbreak Creek again demonstrated her superb storytelling ability.  Three independent women in the Old West definitely made an impact on the rough-hewn men in town.  There was just enough about the other two women that when Edwina’s story came to an end, I was looking forward to reading the next two books.

Archangel’s Blade by Nalini Singh reminded me why I once loved paranormals and read them nearly exclusively.  Her world-building is amazing, and even coming in very late in this series, I was able to follow the characters and conflict very well.  Singh made me want to read the rest of the series, both delved into the backlist and await future titles.  Usually series peter out or are at a slump by the fourth book.

Okay, there are the winner and top four runners up.  When I was getting everything ready for the poll and reading a couple of really dull books, it was a nice surprise to remember that 2011 was a pretty good reading year.  I have hope now for 2012 which for me is starting slowly as far as review books go.

LinnieGayl: My favorite romance of the year was Lauren Willig’s The Orchid Affair. I’m a longtime fan of the series and this is one of my favorites. I found the setting in post-revolutionary Paris to be particularly striking.

Jane: This is tough, but I think I would say A Lady’s Lessons in Scandal, by Meredith Duran.  It was very Dickensian, but still had a fantastic romance and wonderfully flawed characters.  A few close runners-up are books mentioned by other staffers: The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne; A Night to Surrender by Tessa Dare; and When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa James.  I may be a bit biased toward the sub genre, but it seems to me that some of the best writers today are writing historicals.

Sandy: For me, it was all about historical romance this year, with one exception: Dragon Bound by Thea Harrison.  I loved this book primarily for the ancient, world weary hero.

As for historicals, there were three that stood out. The Other Guy’s Bride by Connie Brockway was a book I’d waited years for and the author delivered.  To perfection.  Julie Ann Long’s What I Did for a Duke was also a book I greatly enjoyed.  The author did a fantastic job of creating intimacy you could actually feel – rare, indeed.  But, for me, the book of the year goes to the great Loretta Chase. Silk is for Seduction was delicious.  And funny.  And romantic.  It’s why I read romance.

Lee and Maggie both chose Susanna Kearsley’s The Rose Garden:

Lee: My favorite book of 2011 was Susanna Kearsley’s The Rose Garden.  It was part historical and part contemporary but completely mesmerizing.  Other favorites were The Orchard Affair by Lauren Willig and The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne – two wonderfully written stories set mostly in Paris.  And my other favorite is a contemporary by Lucy Dillon, The Secret of Happy Ever After, about a woman who takes over a bookshop and makes it such a wonderful place that I really want to visit.  Too bad it’s not real.

And our three-vote winner? Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk, which received top honors from Lynn, Jean, and me.

Lynn: This is tough because I still have so many 2011 books on my TBR list.  I think my favorite would have to be The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne. I enjoyed Spymaster’s Lady so much that I was afraid of being disappointed by this one.  However, the craftsmanship of the writing just amazed me.

And my runner-up isn’t a romance per se.  It’s actually a mystery from a series that has one of the most compelling romances running through it that I’ve read in years. One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer- Fleming was one of my favorite installments to date.

Jean: The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne.  I have been waiting for this book since Ms. Bourne’s first Napoleonic volume, and it did not disappoint.  This book engaged my mind, respect, and heart, and is ample proof that we are privileged – and damned lucky – that such a gifted author has decided to write books for our enjoyment.

Runner Up: When Beauty Tamed the Beast, Eloisa James.  It’s official: Eloisa James rocks.  Anyone who can couple House with a girl named Berry – and make it work – automatically gets points from me.  A unique book that was my vote for this year’s Favourite Funny and Tearjerker, and probably my favourite Eloisa James yet.

Blythe: The Black Hawk was my definite winner this year. The writing was fabulous, the plot unusual and epic in scope (I loved that the hero and heroine met when they were young), and the characters easy to fall in love with. Books like this are exactly what made me fall in love with romance in the first place. My runners up are Kate Noble’s Follow My Lead, a delightful road romance (through Bavaria, of all places), and Carla Kelly’s wonderful holiday anthology, Coming Home for Christmas.

The poll results will be released soon, and we’ll find out whether our favorites are your favorites. And though it’s too late to vote, it’s never too late to try the great ones you may have missed. For me that will be the Eloisa James. How about you? Where did your reading take you this year? Who have you missed that you might want to try?

– Blythe Barnhill

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