For 2013’s list I thought it would be simple justice finally to include a genre I’m unashamed to admit has always brought me great reading pleasure (or has, at least, since the redoubtable Rebekah Bradford convinced me to abandon my provincial snobbery on the subject): romance novels! Not “romance novels ironically” or “romance novels as barometers of the pitiless male hegemony” but simply “romance novels as fun books to read.” Fun, and not nearly so easy to write as you might think – hence what could euphemistically be called the wide disparity in quality among the titles on offer at your local evil chain bookstore. In 2013 I read a good many romances that were so thin, so dreary, and so unsatisfying they might as well have been Irish memoirs. But there were highlights too, and here they are:
10. Checkmate, My Lord by Tracey Devlyn – The “Nexus” historical spy-series continues with this tight little story of Catherine Ashcroft, who’s at first pressured and then intrigued to work her way into the confidences (and perhaps the bed) of clandestine spy-master Sebastian Danvers, the Earl of Somerton, and in the first half of the novel that follows, these two smart, suspicious characters embark on a mental chess match that Devlyn brings wonderfully to life. I hadn’t read this author before, but now I’ll be on the look-out for her previous novel, A Lady’s Revenge.
9. The Dissolute Duke by Sophia James – The “dissolute duke” in the title of James’ bubbly novel – the fourth in a loose series but by no means dependent on those earlier books – is Taylen Ellesmere, the Duke of Alderworth, whose terrible reputation in polite society is well known to our feisty heroine, Lady Lucinda, even before she accidentally finds herself in the duke’s bedroom, confronting him as he reads naked in bed. A subsequent carriage accident allows James to complicate the romance of these two characters with a delightful number of obstacles and misunderstandings, and it’s all done with practiced ease.
8. London’s Last True Scoundrel by Christina Brooke – Even before opening this latest from Brooke (author of the wonderful Mad about the Earl), I encountered the familiar … er, anatomy of our old friend Paul Marron, which felt like taking a journey to the firmly-rounded hills of home – and the actual text inside is even better! Brooke is very good at counter-weighting her fizzy stories with deeper resonances, and this book is no exception. It features two characters – Jonathon Westruther, Earl of Davenport, and schoolteacher Hilary DeVere – who are each in their own way fleeing from hated reputations. This being a romance novel, they end up fleeing right into each other’s heaving bosoms, and much enjoyment ensues – for them and Brooke’s readers.
7. Forbidden Jewel of India by Louise Allen – I’ve made no secret of my love of the great Harlequin Historical line, and in the last few years that line has only increased my esteem by taking some risks with the standard formula of historical romance novels. An admittedly minor example of one such risk is to switch the setting from England to the colonies, which Louise Allen does in her fast-paced and involving Forbidden Jewel of India, in which a strong-willed half-Indian princess, Anusha Laurens, must rely on the protection of a short-tempered English major, Nick Herriard, to protect her from scheming forces both inside and outside the court of her home. Allen (whose 2012 novel – also for Harlequin Historical – Married to a Stranger was also quite good) keeps all of this moving expertly along and still finds plenty of moments for gentle humor.
6. Why Dukes Say I Do by Manda Collins – Humor – not so much of the ‘gentle’ variety – is the foremost stock-in-trade of Manda Collins, whose bright and enjoyable romances would have figured on many a previous list such as this one if I’d been keeping them over the years (her 2012 book How to Romance a Rake, for instance, had a couple of comic scenes that were perfectly turned), and another of her favorite gimmicks – heroes who want nothing to do with the job – is on full display in this Regency in which society-mad Lady Isabella Wharton is convinced (all but blackmailed) by her godmother to enter the wilds of Yorkshire and visit the notoriously hermit-like Duke of Ormond. Naturally, love blooms far from the glittering lights of society, and when the worst of that society comes calling, the Duke’s fish-out-of-water attempts to protect Lady Isabella are equal parts heartwarming and funny.
5. The Ruin of a Rogue by Miranda Neville – Gorgeous Marcus Lithgow, the ne’er-do-well hero of Neville’s latest, is a gambler and a cardsharp, and he’s been making a comfortable if precarious living preying at the gaming tables of Europe when this novel opens, whereas Anne Brotherton, the book’s slightly insipid heroine, has been right in the heart of London society, wishing she could find a man who wanted her for herself rather than her fortune. When Lithgow returns to England intent on finding new marks, he senses Anne’s yearning and sets up elaborate ruse after elaborate ruse to gain her trust. When she learns about the ruses, she decides to play her own game of manipulation, and these warring deceptions carry the book along wonderfully to its tangled, predictable ending.
4. The Marriage Wager by Jane Ashford – I’ll be the first to admit that most romance novels, and indeed most of the entrants on this list, don’t exactly distinguish themselves with the level of their prose; easy, even trite writing has long been an unwanted hallmark of the genre. So it’s with a bit of relief that I say Jane Ashford’s utterly winning The Marriage Wager is certainly the best-written of this year’s winners. When Lady Emma Tarrant, returned to England embittered over her late husband’s spendthrift ways, sees Colin Wareham (returned to England embittered over the Napoleonic wars) fleecing her brother at cards, she angrily challenges him to a game in order to reclaim her brother’s debts – but the real joy of the pages that follow is how well-crafted they are. This is the only book on 2013’s romance list I can see myself re-reading soon.
3. When the Marquess Met His Match by Laura Lee Guhrke – Lady Melinda Featherstone, the unlikely heroine of Guhrke’s splendid novel, is a marriage broker: she sees it as her job to help rich American heiresses find suitable English husbands from the ranks of the nobility. Among the least suitable she could imagine is Nicholas, the disreputable Marquess of Trubridge, and when he surprises her by requesting her services, she sets herself to find him the worst match in the world. Readers of romance novels won’t need much help guessing who that match ends up being, but Guhrke has such infectious fun telling her story that its fairly predetermined outlines won’t bother them at much. I certainly wasn’t bothered.
2. An Untitled Lady by Nicky Penttila – The small genre risks taken by a few other books on our list positively pale in comparison to the gambles Nicky Penttila takes in her excellent new novel, in which the heroine, Madeline Wetherby, is forced to abandon her plans to marry into the landed gentry and instead marry a merchant from Manchester, and as the book treks deeper and deeper into the social issues most Regencies (including the Sacred Texts by the Divine Jane) avoid like the plague, I grew more and more impressed with Penttila’s intelligent and daring plot. This is the only book on our list that isn’t for sale at sites like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but all romance fans should do themselves a favor and click on over to Musa Publishing for a copy.
1. Say Yes to the Duke by Kieran Kramer – For the past two social seasons, Lady Janice Sherwood hasn’t had a bit of luck in London’s infamous marriage mart, so her parents agree to send her into the countryside to visit the Duke of Halsey’s grandmother and – and perhaps land the Duke himself. And although she finds the Duke somewhat brutishly fascinating at first, her passions are entirely captivated by handsome, muscular Luke Callahan, one of the Duke’s stable-grooms, who acts far above his station and gives Lady Janice vague, dark warnings about the Duke. The resulting novel, the best romance novel of 2013 deliciously complicates the familiar romance-genre gimmick of mixed up and hidden identities and gives Kramer scope for a very pleasing amount of clever dialogue and nifty scenes of dueling personalities.