One of my children asked me recently if I’d ever given a book I’d reviewed an A+. I said I hadn’t. He then asked if I thought I ever would. I said yes, that in fact, there was a book I’d reviewed this past year and had given an A- to that I now see as an A+ novel (Julie Anne Long’s What I Did for a Duke.) “So what’s an A+ book?” he asked. “Let me think about it,” I said.

Not only did I think about it, I did some research. First, I checked how many A+’s AAR has given over the years. (21, and none since 2007.)  I then asked my colleagues at AAR what they would consider an A+ book and if they’d ever read one. The responses were varied, yet many had similar qualities.

Sandy said, “An A+ book is a book that satisfies on every level.  It is, in fact, a perfect book. I’ve given just one A+ and that was for Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer, a book first published in 1932 that I loved as a teenager and still love today.  In my case, it was a book that stood the test of time. I wish now that I’d given an A+ to Untie My Heart by Judith Ivory.  I gave it the typical A- back then and I regret it now.”

Wendy L agreed with Sandy and added, “Yes, and it has to provoke an emotional response, either crying, laughter, or anger to make it an A+ for me.” She listed The Truelove Bride by Shana Abe, Games of Command by Linnea Sinclair, possibly Charming Grace by Deborah Smith, and oddly enough Dooly and the SnortSnoot by Jack Kent as books that would rate an A+ for her.

LinneGayl added, “… it would be a book that would stick with me over time. Scenes and characters would pop into my mind, sometimes years after the first reading, and it would be one I would want to reread again and again. They would also be books in which I would hope that the author would write subsequent books featuring the secondary characters, because they too, as well as the hero and heroine, were remarkable and unforgettable. Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve read a romance that would qualify for me, although I can think of a number that would definitely be A’s. I can think of two mysteries, Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (the first Flavia de Luce) by Alan Bradley that are definitely A+ for me.”

Vicky H said she’d never reviewed a romance that she’d give an A+ to with one exception. She says, “I do have one I would give an A+ if I were writing one today and that is the audio version of Outlander.  The narrator’s performance makes it over the top and an A+ in my mind.” LinnieGayl agreed that the audiobook versions of some romances deserve different grades than the written versions. She says, “I can think of several SEPs that would have been an A or A- were I reviewing the print version (Match Me If You Can comes to mind). However, if I were to have written a full review of the Anna Fields audio version, it would definitely be an A+. On the other hand, one of my all-time Nora Roberts’ favorites, Born in Fire, is definitely a solid A for me in print. But in audio, it would be in the B range.”

Jean couldn’t think of a recent romance she’d give an A+ to. She says, “An A+ is perfect in every way – that is not negotiable.  Plot, character, setting, pace, prose – all are original, heartfelt and moving, and there isn’t a single extraneous word.  Seriously, I have to not find anything wrong with it, or change a thing.  I have never given an A+ to a book written after 1980 (probably because my standards are so darn high), but The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, and Bound By Your Touch by Meredith Duran come the closest.” She added, “However, if we go back fifty years, then I’d name Georgette Heyer’s Frederica as a personal A+.  Everything in that book works for me – everything.”

Lynn S says, “Hmm…that’s tough.  I can think of several A’s for me, but an A+ is hard.  I haven’t done a reread in several years, but I do think Alinor by Roberta Gellis would probably still hold up for me as would Venetia by Georgette Heyer.”

Pat H also loves Heyer’s Frederica. She says for her, “An A+ would be a book that sucks me into the world and characters so tightly that the real world around me not only dims, but when I’m pulled back to it, I struggle to get back into the fictional world.  The main characters are people I know, understand, and love, people I personally would sacrifice for.  Not only am I intellectually engaged, I’m viscerally sharing the emotions of the main characters.  The A+ book is one I want to read over and over again because of the totality of the experience.  The A+ book to me is the epitome of the addiction of reading. Books written after 1970 that fall into this category for me are Maggie Osborne’s Silver Lining, Mary Balogh’s The Temporary Wife and Slightly Dangerous, Carla Kelly’s The Admiral’s Penniless Bride, Lisa Kleypas’ Suddenly You, Maureen McKade’s A Reason to Live, and Sarah Mayberry’s She’s Got It Bad.”

Blythe too is a fan of Outlander. She says, “For me A+ books would not only be perfect, but memorable and maybe even groundbreaking. They are the kind of books that are so absorbing you feel annoyed when your real life intrudes. I can think of several that are solid As for me, but the only two I’d really give an A+ grade to are Outlander (not precisely JUST a romance, but surely about as romantic as it gets) and Mary Jo Putney’s Shattered Rainbows.”

Maggie reserves her A+’s for the classics. She says, “My A+ would be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. For me it is a perfect read.  A second A+ would be Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.”

Rike has given a book an A+ here at AAR and, had she to do it again, might have given more. She says, “I’ve only given one A+ here at AAR, and that was for Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, which is YA fantasy with a very strong romance. I’ve given quite a few As, though, and when I consider the definition that the book has to stay with you, that you reread it again and again, and want to know about all the secondary characters, then Alinor by Roberta Gellis, In Pursuit of the Green Lion by Judith Merkle Riley, Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly and Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart also qualify.” She adds, “Among Georgette Heyer’s books, I agree with all who name Frederica. Pitch-perfect, every sentence of it.”

Heather R thinks the A+ book is hard to find. She says, “I think of an A+ book as being a sort of elusive dream. Each time I open a book I’m hoping that it will deliver that perfect blend of superb writing (plot, characterization, dialogue, etc) and strong emotions. I have to love the characters and want to spend time with them. And though it has a satisfactory conclusion, I should be left wanting more. I’m still searching for my A+ read, but to date the book that probably comes closest for me is Laura Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly.

Jane G also hasn’t found the perfect book yet. She says, “I don’t know if I’ve ever read an A+ book, but for me it would be one that I could read over and over and over again– a true DIK– and that I could recommend to almost anyone, unequivocally.  The closest thing would be Outlander.”

Leigh thinks that the way we see books changes over time. She says, “I don’t think I have either (read an A+ romance). And it is difficult for me to think of books that are still A books for me.  I fall in love with them upon the first reading, but after re-reading them so often they turn into comfort reads, which is not the same as an A book.   A books I tend to rave about and recommend to my friends.   And after re-reading them so many times they lose their intensity.” The only book she’s given an A to is Sharon Shinn’s Dark Moon Defender. Leigh loves that book because “the hero doesn’t really know what love is. He grew up without it, and he has never experienced it, but his gradual awakening to it, rather than a quick intense blinding revelation touches me so. Add into that his realization he has family, and I can’t help but be touched every time I read it.”

As for me, an A+ book is one I adored the first time I read it, have re-read it several times, and, each time, found further depth and power in its prose. Compared to my colleagues, I’m clearly easier to please–there are at least five books I’d give an A+ to. They are the aforementioned What I Did for a Duke by Julie Anne Long, My Lord and Spymaster by Joanna Bourne, Lord Perfect by Loretta Chase, The Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran, and Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale.

What about you? Are there romances you think merit an A+? If so, what are they?

– Dabney Grinnan

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