Jessica at Racy Romance Reviews invited us all to post our top 16 romance novels in honor of Kathleen Winsor, author of Forever Amber. Here are mine, in no particular order. I've provided a little commentary on each one, partly because I love them all so much, and also because not everyone likes the same things, but it's always fun to learn about new books. And because I'm old, so some of my choices are way before everyone's time! Oh, and one more thing. Sarah at MonkeyBearReviews had a quiz asking which was better, the 90s or the 2000s for romances. Well, I don't "do" paranormals, so you'll see a distinct bias for books published in the 70s, 80s and 90s. No werewolves or vamps here!
1. The Beast of Belleterre (short story by Mary Jo Putney)
I know MJP isn't everyone's favorite author, but I really think this might be *the* book I'd clutch to my bosom as the fire department made me leave the house. It's a novella based on Beauty & the Beast (my favorite fairy tale) in which the hero is so disfigured he hides from everyone. He reluctantly marries the delicate and talented heroine to save her from her brutish father but then can't bring himself even to let her see him. It's not flawless; it's basically backstory, interior monologues and damned little actual interaction between the characters before the end, but it is emotional porn at its finest. Neither of these people thinks that life should be very good to them, and so their expectations are so low that it's hard to see how they'll work their way out of the sadness. But they do.
2. To Love and to Cherish (the first of the Wyckerly trilogy by Patricia Gaffney)
More emotional porn (a theme with me, I'll admit) but done so well and so beautifully written that I actually lent it to my non-romance reading mother. I re-read it recently, and was impressed all over again. It comes the closest, I think, of conveying to the reader that effervescence of falling in love -- passing messages, seeing the beloved unexpectantly and feeling your breath catch, etc. Then it's sad, then scary, then difficult, and by the time they end up together, they -- and we -- are exhausted.
3. Pretty much anything by Jane Feather
I know, this is a cop out -- pick a book, already! But she's so consistently good that no one of her books rises inexorably to the surface. I like Vixen (from her V series) because of a particularly exquisite sex scene (go read it yourself; your results might differ), but is it her best romance? On the other hand, I like the Bride trilogy, set in Edwardian England. She does a great job of conveying that interplay of stuffy Victorian restrictions and taboos with the nascent feminist movement. So those books make you think: how can women consciously trying to make lives for themselves fall in love and still maintain the ideals they set out with? Chances are, if I reread all of JF's books from the beginning, I'd find one that excels, but that's not happening tonight.
4. Any of Julia Spencer-Fleming – or better yet, the single romance you’d get by cutting & splicing all the scenes of Russ and Clare together and their relationship's evolution.
No, not a cop out this time. I like the mysteries just fine, but what I had to re-read immediately was the romance that develops over time in the so-far-seven books in the series. If you don't know these books, start with In the Bleak Midwinter and work through all seven. They are that good, both technically (I think she does the best job with point-of-view) and emotionally. There's not much romance in each book, but what's there, to quote Spencer Tracy, is cherce.
5. Cassandra by Chance Betty Neels
A Mills & Boon/Harlequin series romance from the early 70s, and my favorite of all the Betty Neels books. Hers was a very limited format: Dutch doctor hero (much later in her career, some English heros were permitted), virginal English nurse/dogsbody heroine. Heroine was more likely than not plain ("mousy") but always a lovely spirit. Look, I can't defend these to anyone; you either like them or you don't. But if you like one, you'll like them all, and there are LOTS of them! Runner-up from her backlist is Fate is Remarkable, which has a very satisfying denouement. (Warning: really hackney plot devices at work here: The Other Woman, Misunderstandings, Lack of Communication. You wouldn't want to BE these characters, but *sigh* I love visiting them.)
6. Imprudent Lady Joan Smith
I haven't re-read this one in a long time, but I remember it as being LOL funny. (See, also, Talk of the Town) Regencies, no sex (now, isn't it extraordinary that we have to specify that for a historical period where chastity was so important even the appearance of impropriety was fatal?), but wonderful characters and stories. And seriously funny bits.
7. High Garth – Mira Stables
Vaguely Early Victorian; there's a minor bit about the railroads being built, but it's mostly a domestic romance about a man struggling to make a small holding in Yorkshire (or thereabouts) profitable. After the hothouse bouquets that are today's historical romances, this is like a buttercup: simple and simply perfect. Honorable mention: Miss Mouse (or maybe Lissa, or Honey Pot -- ?). Oh, I don't think she wrote a bad book.
8. Her Man of Affairs -- Elizabeth Mansfield
There's a real class issue here, and for once the hero isn't magically discovered to be the long-lost Duke of Whatevershire. The titular hero is the Scottish clerk who's charged with straightening out the heroine's finances. Lots of lovely Scottish words -- it's hard not to want to use a couple when you've finished the book -- and a genuine conflict that isn't very easily resolved.
9. His Lordship’s Mistress – Joan Wolf
More Emo-Porn. I'll acknowledge that the world is rather sanitized and perfect in Wolf's universe: the heroine is the most courageous person ever, the hero is beautiful, yadda yadda. But oh, my word, when the problems arise, they feel very real. Which of course makes the resolution all the more satisfying.
10. These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer
Probably the grandmother of romances that ask the question, "What happens when the most exalted and self-composed, not to mention powerful, hero meets his match?!" Here it's the Duke of Avon and a French waif/gamine named Leonie. There's a lot of complicated stuff in 18th Century England and France and some rather over-the-top secondary characters but a charming HEA, and yes, some emo-porn. Don't miss the sequel, Devil's Cub, where the heir to Avon meets his match! A very different dynamic; you can't say Heyer was pulling a Betty Neels with the same characters in mildly different books...
11. Sweet Everlasting – Patricia Gaffney
I had to look this one up on Amazon to be sure I knew the title, and I noticed someone commenting that the heroine's extreme other-worldliness and innocence made parts of this romance seem a tad pedophilic. Odd, I'd not thought of that (I'd have indicted These Old Shades or Jane Feather's Vixen before this book), but seeing it written out gave me a moment's pause. At some point, I have to admit that my personal backstory does affect how I feel about it, so sure -- the extraordinarily young-in-spirit heroine is perhaps not wise enough to the world to fall for the hero, but she does and that's really the basis of the challenge they need to meet. Can I say every one should love it? No. Do I love it? Yes.
12. Kiss an Angel – Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Here's another one I'm not sure I can defend. Spoiled heroine gets her comeuppence at the hands of a seemingly cruel "husband." In the wrong hands, that set up never gets out of the "get a protective order" range, but Phillips presents the heroine as needing some tough love. I love a lot of SEP's books, but this one vibrates in a way that others don't.
13. Dream a Little Dream – SEP
My favorite of her Chicago Stars (a fictional football team) books; this one has the heroine really, really down on her luck but refusing to accept charity. Again, in real life her son should be in foster care and the county agencies should be getting her some housing and a job just until she can get it together to get her son back, but in Rom County, all is well -- the hero is emotionally wounded and so they can just about tolerate being in each other's company. I do like it when people rescue themselves by loving others. (One of my favorite movies: Pretty Woman. Say no more.)
14 Daddy Long-Legs -- Jean Webster
This was written almost 100 years ago, but it's a wonderful book. It would be labeled YA now; it's about an orphan with red hair (no, not Anne of Green Gables, but close) who gets to go to college because a trustee provides her with an anonymous scholarship. It's an epistolary novel but I like reading people's letters, and the device pretty much works until the very end, when -- face it, we shouldn't have to read about a kissy-kissy love scene in a letter. It's also a fascinating portrait of an American girls' college like Smith or Vassar back when educating women was not considered entirely respectable.
15a. Maddie’s Justice – Leslie LaFoy
Someone recently asked for suggestions for Western romances. Here's my pick (if anyone's still interested), and I don't think anyone else suggested LaFoy. Her novels run the gamut from hockey-themed contemporary to a range of historicals. This one is particularly good with a beleagured heroine (convicted of murder, wrongly of course) and hero (charged with transporting her until he discovers someone's trying to kill them both) and the slow way they learn to trust each other.
15b. Lynn Kerstan
This isn't meant to be a cheat, although it will look that way. I can't pick any specific one of Kerstan's early Regencies, but they're all good. And I think of her and LaFoy as being in the same boat. Sure, I have favorite LaVyrle Spencer romances, and Linda Howard, and so forth, but those are the big names. I want to recommend authors like Kerstan and LaFoy -- both names that I still instinctively look for in the big box bookstore even if their very best work is already been published.
16. The Rainbow Season – Candace Camp aka Lisa Gregory
I have a soft spot for Camp; she's a lawyer too (or, if she's let her license lapse, then technically she's "trained as a lawyer") and I've enjoyed her contemporaries (as Kristin James), her historicals (as Lisa Gregory) and her more recent books as herself. But this one stands alone -- a book I've reread so many times I could almost quote entire passages. Hero and Heroine get married (forget why, but it hardly matters) and he's on hard times. But he works really hard to be a good farmer and husband; these people enjoy what seems to be a relatively happy married life. Which means the conflict is a bit strained, but who cares -- they triumph over the harsh weather conditions, the drought, and what little misunderstanding there was between them. And live happily ever after. You just know it!