Another year, another Top Ten, and I’ve been lucky – again – to have had a pretty good year of reading. I gave out six straight A grades (four to print books, two to audiobooks), more than a dozen A-s and a good handful of B+s and Bs at AAR, so I think I’ve done pretty well on the whole. One thing I’ve been really pleased about this year is the discovery of a few new authors of historical romance who are, I hope, going to be around for a long time and will go from strength to strength. And related to that, I’m chuffed that my “best of” list this year includes no less than TWO début novels to which I awarded DIK status; Cat Sebastian’s The Soldier’s Scoundrel, and K.C. Bateman’s To Steal a Heart. I’ve already chosen Lorraine Heath’s The Earl Takes All as my favourite read of 2016, so here, without further ado – and in no particular order – are my favourite books of the year.
Any “best book” I pick today will almost certainly be a different one tomorrow, but today I’m going to plump for The Earl Takes All. Lorraine Heath took a really tricky premise – the widow falling for her dead husband’s twin brother – and made it work brilliantly. The chemistry between the central couple leaps off the page and the romance is very well developed, showing both of them growing together and as individuals. I loved the flawed, complex central characters and their struggles felt very realistic; complicated and messy but beautifully handled.
It’s an emotionally charged book, right from the start, and that’s something Ms. Heath does so incredibly well and which never fails to draw me in completely.
The Earl by Katharine Ashe (The Devil’s Duke #2)
Enemies-to-lovers, a gripping, high-stakes adventure story, complex, well-drawn characters and a sizzling romance, The Earl has it all. Colin Gray and Emily Vale have danced around each other for years, engaging in a bitingly sarcastic and public correspondence while having no idea of the true identity of their correspondent. Childhood friends long estranged, they are thrown together when Emily asks for help to locate a young woman last seen in the vicinity of the Duke of Loch Irvine’s castle in Scotland – and trouble ensues when they are wrongly accused of murder and have to go on the run. I loved the way that Emily and Colin gradually come to a new understanding of each other and let go of their misconceptions; this is an extremely well-developed and intense romance as well as a terrific adventure yarn, and Ms. Ashe does a terrific job in incorporating some astute social and historical comment all the while. In my review I said that The Earl is “historical romance at its best”. I think that says it all. A/BN/iB/K
Lords of Misrule (Roundheads and Cavaliers #4) by Stella Riley
Fans of Ms. Riley’s novels set during the English Civil War have waited a long time for this book; more than twenty years, to be precise. Eden Maxwell appeared first in The Black Madonna, as an idealistic twenty-one year old who married the love of his life – who then betrayed him by running off with another man. Through the other books in the series, we’ve seen Eden struggle with his relationships with his family and, most importantly, his children; and watched him become a trusted adviser to the Parliamentary forces. In Lords of Misrule, Eden, now a widower, finally gets his happy ending, while England remains unsettled under Cromwell’s regime and he has to deal with threats closer to home. Stella Riley is in a class of her own when it comes to historical romance; she immerses readers in the world of seventeenth century England and at the same time puts a sensual, well-developed romance at the centre of her stories, creating attractive, believable protagonists who really seem to act and think like men and women of their times. A/BN/iB/K
The Soldier’s Scoundrel by Cat Sebastian
The first of my début discoveries, Cat Sebastian has penned a beautifully romantic and sexy love story between two men from very different backgrounds set mostly London in the Regency period. Jack Turner is a thief-turned-valet-turned-investigator who champions those in society who have no recourse to the law – women and the poor. He dislikes toffs and wants nothing to do with them, even though he can’t help feeling a reluctant fascination for the handsome and charming Oliver Rivington, second son of an earl and a former army captain. There is so much I loved about this story; not only does Ms. Sebastian show a terrific grasp of the history of the period and the absolute inflexibility of the English class system, she’s also written an intriguing mystery and an extremely insightful romance that’s full of humour and genuine affection. By any standards, it’s a highly accomplished and entertaining piece of work – as a début, it’s also a tremendously impressive one. A/BN/iB/K
To Steal a Heart (Secrets and Spies #1) by K.C. Bateman
It’s been a good year for new authors, and here’s the other one I mentioned at the beginning of this post. K.C. Bateman’s début, To Steal a Heart, held me completely captivated from start to finish, not least because her hero, Nicolas Valette is, to put it simply, sex on a stick. The first in a series of books set during the Napoleonic wars, Nic and our heroine, Marianne, are tasked with the retrieval of a very important prisoner, and the story follows them as they banter through their preparations and try to avoid capture by French troops. Ms. Bateman is an antiquarian by day, so she really knows her stuff, and she has a real talent for creating delicious sexual tension between her characters and writing snappy dialogue that just zings back and forth. The follow up – A Raven’s Heart – was also published in 2016 and got high praise from me, but To Steal a Heart just edged in front to make it into this list. A/BN/iB/K
Unmasking Miss Appleby (Baleful Godmother #1) by Emily Larkin
Emily Larkin is one of those authors who seems to be a well-kept secret and deserves to be much more widely known. I’ve read a few of her books before and rated them very highly, so was delighted when she announced she was writing a new series of historicals (with a paranormal twist). Even though the premise of this sounded a little “out there”, I was confident in Ms. Larkin’s ability to write a well-developed, sexy romance, and on that score I was absolutely not disappointed. The series revolves around a group of young women who will each receive a gift from the Fae on their twenty-fifth birthday. Downtrodden Charlotte Appleby, who, as a poor relation, has very few options open to her and seems set for a life of drudgery, chooses to be able to transform her appearance and then, in the form of a young man, finds employment as secretary to a handsome, but somewhat brusque-mannered earl. Ms. Larkin puts a terrific spin on the “chicks-in-strides” trope (which I normally dislike) and does a great job in showing both the friendship that springs up between the earl and his young secretary, and the romance that develops between the earl and Charlotte. I believe there are at least five more books projected in the series and fully intend to snap up every one of them! A/BN/iB/K
A Duke to Remember (Season for Scandal #2) by Kelly Bowen
Several of my fellow reviewers have selected Kelly Bowen’s Duke of My Heart as one of their 2016 favourites, but while I enjoyed that book, I liked the second book in the author’s Season for Scandal series better. The premise of the series as a whole – that there’s a company run by a duchess which specialises in fixing the seemingly unfixable and making scandal disappear – is unique, and the plots are intriguing. In A Duke to Remember, the duchess’ right-hand woman, Elise de Vries is sent on a mission to gather information regarding a missing duke, a man who disappeared years ago and is widely presumed dead. This is a superb book on all counts; from the crackling chemistry between the protagonists to the well-plotted storyline and fabulous characterisation. Elise and Noah are a pair of survivors, a very well-matched couple who have moved on from tragedy in their pasts, but who don’t spend hours navel-gazing or letting it get in the way of the things they want and need in the present. I’ve just finished reading an advance copy of the next book in the series (Between the Devil and the Duke), which is out in January, and while it’s also very good, A Duke to Remember is definitely my favourite of this series. A/BN/iB/K
A Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock #1)
Oh, Sherry Thomas, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways… I confess that I was a little disappointed when I learned Ms. Thomas was abandoning historical romance for historical mysteries, but I was still excited to read this first book in her new Lady Sherlock series. And what a stonking start to the series it is. The characterisation is exquisite and the way we’re gradually introduced to all the major players is a masterclass in How To Do It Right. The mystery is well-plotted and while there’s not a romance as such, the chemistry between Charlotte and her childhood friend, Lord Ingram Ashburton is off the charts. That said, Ms. Thomas has set herself quite the challenge if she’s going to take things in that direction – and if anyone can pull it off, she can. I am – not very patiently – waiting for book two. A/BN/iB/K
Poison Evidence (Evidence #7) by Rachel Grant
A fast-paced, action-packed thriller combined with a well-developed romance, complex, likeable characters and some seriously sexy scenes, Poison Evidence is everything one could want in a romantic thriller. Our heroine, Ivy, is a self-confessed tech-geek whose expertise is in geological archaeology. She is about to start field-testing her latest invention, a complex computerised mapping system using infrared and Lidar, but it seems that there are others interested in such a device, and that those people will stop at nothing to obtain it. The book starts strongly and stays that way – and the final twist is one I absolutely didn’t see coming. I couldn’t put the book down and am now working my way through Ms. Grant’s backlist. A/BN/iB/K
The Virgin’s War (Tudor Legacy #3)
The first book in Laura Andersen’s Tudor Legacy trilogy – The Virgin’s Daughter – made my “Best of 2015” list, so it’s perhaps not surprising that another of her books has found its way onto my 2016 list. The story is set some twenty years or so after the English Reformation, and after the ascension of Elizabeth I to the throne. But here, there’s a very important difference. This series –like the one before it – is set in an alternate timeline; in this version of Tudor England, Elizabeth married Philip of Spain and had a daughter by him. The whole series needs to be read in order for things to make sense, but that’s no hardship because all three books are extremely well-written and well-researched. It takes a considerable knowledge of history to be able to “Get It Wrong” so plausibly! But amid all the plotting and court intrigue, Ms. Andersen never loses sight of the personal stories she’s telling along the way. She has created a set of wonderful characters for whom I came to care and whose joys and heartbreak (seriously – I cried more than once) I experienced right along with them. The Virgin’s War brings the series to a fitting and perfect conclusion. A/BN/iB/K
As is always the case, keeping the list down to just ten is a very difficult task, so here, for anyone interested are my almost made-its: Duke of Sin/Duke of Pleasure by Elizabeth Hoyt, Forevermore by Kristen Callihan, A Gentleman’s Position by K.J Charles and His Royal Secret/Favourite by Lilah Pace. They all received high ratings from me – and I wish I’d had room to choose them all!