By far the cheeriest of our sub-genres is this one, romance novels (I used to find murder mysteries more cheering – because you’re guaranteed to read about at least one dead human – but I’ve mellowed a bit), and yet the successful crafting a cheery escapism is no small feat of writing, which makes the sheer amount of wonderful romance novels published in 2015 all the more impressive. Unlike most of the categories in this annual gotterdamerung, I had genuine problems narrowing the list down to the ten best:
10 A Scoundrel by Moonlight by Anna Campbell (Forever) – This is the fourth installment in Anna Campbell’s “Sons of Sin” series and the most headlong: a young woman named Nell is plotting an elaborate revenge against notorious rake James Fairbrother, the Marquess of Leath on behalf of her sister and all the other women whose reputations Fairbrother has tarnished over the years. But when Nell actually meets the object of her plot, she finds quite a different man than she expected – and the romantic sparks start to fly! This author long since won me over with her flair for dialogue, and this book certainly did nothing to change that devotion.
9 The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath (Avon) – This author’s utterly delectable series “The Scandalous Gentlemen of St. James Place” comes to an end with this volume, in which scheming, money-desperate Roslind Sharpe agrees to a shocking proposal from the licentious Duke of Avendale: he’ll solve all her financial problems – in exchange for a week as his mistress! As with Anne Campbell, so too with Lorraine Heath: I come to her books already a fan (her earlier book When the Duke was Wicked sealed the deal for me) and just wanting more.
8 Her Wild Hero by Paige Tyler (Sourcebooks Casablanca) – Over the years here at Stevereads, I’ve made no secret of my preference for historical romances over any of the more contemporary types that increasingly flood the market (one of my latest order-forms had no historicals), and I have good reasons for that preference (and one of them is not, as some of you wags have suggested, that I personally miss the Regency period): in my experience, historicals tend to be better-constructed than their contemporary counterparts and also slightly more reserved, not cutting straight to the sheet-scorching. It’s on this latter point that I tend to appreciate Paige Tyler’s novels as exceptions to the rule: she creates emotionally believable characters even when those characters are otherwise … fairly exotic, shall we say? (The hero in this latest book is a gun-toting Special Ops agent who’s also a were-bear, for example) And her female characters – very much including our heroine this time around, Kendra Carlsen, tend to be tough without simply being male characters written as women, which is very refreshing.
7 Running Wild by Susan Andersen (HQN Books) – In terms of sheer climate as well as plot, we’re not moving far from Her Wild Hero‘s jungle-located action to the jungle-located action of Susan Andersen’s Running Wild, the final book in her “Sisterhood Diaries” series, in which strong-willed Mags Deluca is searching desperately for her parents in the wilds of the Amazon jungle while trying to avoid getting killed by the drug-cartel enforcers who are chasing her and somehow involved in her parents’ disappearance. Along for the ride is Finn Kavanagh (the brother of a previous hero in the series), and the two become romantically attracted to each other even as they’re running for their lives (the cover must represent a happily-ever-after moment someplace dry, since dressing like that anywhere in the Amazon region would instantly result in a living carapace of chiggers). As in the other books in this series, in Running Wild Andersen juggles action and romance very well.
6 The Duke Can Go to the Devil by Erin Knightley (Signet) – This delightful novel is yet another entry in a series – in this case, Erin Knightley’s “Prelude to a Kiss” series (which also featured the wonderful The Earl I Adore) – but most Romance authors are seasoned hands at making their books-in-series read like stand-alones, while tucking away their “Easter egg” rewards for long-time readers (I counted three in this latest book). Knightley in particular makes every book feel fresh, and I think that might apply more to The Duke Can Go to the Devil than any previous book in this series. Knightley is also crackerjack at plots that invert expectations – in this case, confronting a prim-and-proper Duke with a free-spirited sea captain’s daughter and letting the rippling dialogue flow!
5 Put Up Your Duke by Megan Frampton (Avon) – This is the second installment in Megan Frampton’s “Dukes Behaving Badly” series, and as you might have guessed from the title, some of its plot-business centers, rather unconventionally for a Regency, on boxing: it’s the preferred hobby (and means of release) of Nicholas Smithfield, who needs it more than ever because a) he’s just become a duke, b) he’s been contracted without his doing into marriage with Isabella Sawford, and c) she’s a delicate, intelligent soul, not at all the type this hardened rake is accustomed to bedding. There follows a wonderfully-executed coming-to-love story, one that Frampton peppers with nifty sub-plots, the best of which involves Isabella’s sister Margaret, who defies their parents’ marriage plans; the short note she sends them is one of the most arresting moments in the book and virtually begs for Margaret to have a book of her own.
4 Better When He’s Brave by Jay Crownover (William Morrow) – After Better When He’s Bold and Better When He’s Bad, this is the third volume in Jay Crownover’s gritty “Welcome to the Point” series, and unlike most of the other books-in-series I’ve been mentioning, this one really is improved if it’s read after its predecessors – but even read alone, it’s still plenty good enough to be on this Stevereads list! It’s the story of pure-souled tough guy Titus King, a cop fighting what seems like an uphill battle against the forces of crime in the seedy town of the Point (details are scarce, but I get the impression it’s not in Iowa). In the way of romance novels, his life is complicated by the arrival in town of a young woman named Reeve Black, who needs his help but also tugs at his heart (and other bits of his anatomy) – and Crownover writes it all with such lean energy that the pages just fly by.
3 Taming the Rake by Monica McCarthy (Buccaneer Press) – In this entry in her “Rake Slayers” series, the delightful Monica McCarthy descends from her usual haunts in the Scottish Highlands and fashions a Regency of wonderful energy and depth. The “Rake Slayers” here are a group of London women who’ve made a pact to infiltrate the lives of the city’s most notorious womanizers, set them up, and then dump them – to give them a taste of their own medicine, as it were. The match-up this time around is Lady Georgina Beauclerk and the dissolute Earl of Coventry – but after she’s forced herself into his ramshackle world and brought order and – gasp – respectability, her own expectations are rumpled when she realizes that underneath Coventry’s hardened veneer there’s a man worth knowing.
2 The Love of a Rogue by Christi Caldwell – I’m a newcomer to Christi Caldwell’s “Heart of a Duke” series (of which this is the third installment), but this book was so good I intend to rectify my omissions right away in the New Year. This is the story – at once both predictable and utterly heartwarming – of poor Lady Imogen Moore, who’s the object of high-society gossip because her intended groom suddenly married her sister instead. She takes refuge in the company her best friend, Chloe Edgerton, but this refuge is soon endangered by Chloe’s young “chaperone” of a brother, Sir Alex – who begins to fall for Imogen just about as quickly as she begins to fall for him. The result is a treat of a book – and the addition of a new ‘must read’ Romance author to my list!
1 The Duke Who Knew Too Much by Grace Callaway – At long last, the first in a series! Grace Callaway’s book is the first in her “Heart of Enquiry” series, and this excellent brew of romance and intrigue and emotion is also the Stevereads best Romance novel of 2015. On one level, it’s also the most conventional novel on our list this year, the story of a worldly young London man, Alaric McLeod, the Duke of Strathaven, and a high-spirited young country girl, Emma Kent – imagine Pride and Prejudice if Elizabeth Bennet lost her sarcasm and Mr. Darcy gained a title. But Callaway has many, many more complications in mind, and the obstacles and detours she throws in the way of her two would-be lovers are all the more intriguing for being so historically unlikely. In the end, what started out looking like the most predictable romance imaginable turns into a smart, sexy romp not quite like anything else I read this year.
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