Best Books of 2016 – Romance!
Even in the darkest of times — and, although the fact may not be immediately apparent, 2016 was the darkest year in United States history – the Romance genre can be relied upon to divert, to catch me up in all its fictional squabbles with their ironclad-foretold outcomes, to take my mind off the rest of my reading, let alone the outside world. This year was no exception, and neither was it an exception in displaying – despite my best intentions, I swear! – my sweet-tooth for Regency historicals, although a always there were plenty of great exceptions. These were the books – with their gaudy covers and smiling, hard-working authors – that I turned to during the year when I wanted to be sure if my welcome, and they didn’t disappoint. These were the best of them:
10. My American Duchess by Eloisa James (Avon) – Mary Pelford, the funny and very endearing American heroine of this sparkling Eloisa James novel, has a commitment problem: she’s jilted two men on the way to marriage already, and now that she’s moved to England and is engaged to a perfectly decent man, she’s determined to change her ways – until she meets the imperious Duke of Trent and the sudden domination of personal chemistry that James writes so well takes over.
9. The Darkest Torment by Gena Showalter (HQN Books) – For a total tonal shift, we move to Gena Showalter’s “Lords of the Underworld” series, which is neither funny nor endearing! This latest book stars grim and ruthless undead assassin Baden, who arrives in the mortal world from the underworld and is quickly and efficiently paired by Showalter with a feisty dog trainer named Katarina while the two have fast-paced adventures. Showalter is a past master of unlikely but nevertheless convincing steamy connections between her characters, and this book certainly provides.
8. Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins (Avon) – If any romance writer is going to be able to hook me on a drama set in Reconstruction-era Nevada rather than Regency-era London, that writer is Beverly Jenkins, and she easily did just that in her new book, in which successful businessman Rhine Fontaine owes a good deal of his prosperity to the fact that only his immediate family knows he’s a former Union Army soldier “passing” for a white man. His growing relationship with a young woman named Eddy Carmichael – who has dreams of her own – turns into just the kind of complicated, often frustrating dynamic I’ve come to expect from this fantastic author.
7. Marrying Winterborne by Lisa Kleypas (Avon) – There’s a businessman also at the heart of Lisa Kleypas’s wonderful latest book, but the only thing Rhys Winterborne shares in common with Rhine Fontaine is that they’re both very easy on the eyes; Rhys is a self-absorbed prick whose wealth has made him arrogant – and who’s therefore ripe for falling in love, in this case with a classic Kleypas heroine: Lady Helen Ravenel, who’s far more insightful and assertive than she seems. And as an added bonus, the love-plot is complicated with all the real-world obstacles at which this author excels in throwing in the way of her star-crossed lovers.
6. Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt (Grand Central) – One of the pleasures of reading books-in-series is on full display in this latest romp by Elizabeth Hoyt: sometimes, in a romance series, you can follow one secondary character through many stories, always wondering what would happen if that character got a story of their own. In Duke of Sin, this happens gloriously to one of the most intriguing characters in Hoyt’s “Maiden Lane” series, Valentine Napier, the Duke of Montgomery, a sly charmer who in this novel meets his perfect foil in stubborn, sensual housekeeper Bridget Crumb. No romance author beats Hoyt at repartee and quick, funny scenes, and there’s plenty of both in Duke of Sin.
5. Out Rider by Lindsay McKenna (HQN Books) – There are precious few quick, funny scenes in Out Rider, an installment in Lindsay McKenna’s series of contemporary Westerns set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming – this is a somber book laced with threats of violence, and McKenna writes it all with terrific engaging energy. It’s the story of haunted ex-Marine Devorah McGuire, who takes a job at Grand Tetons National Park in order to escape her complicated past and there begins to fall in love with laconic horseman Sloane Rankin. McKenna specializes in portraying wounded, guarded souls slowly coming to feel trust – but she’s also no slouch at thriller-style plot-tangles, and both of these talents are in top form here.
4. Claimed by a Highlander by Margaret Mallory (via CreateSpace) – Many’s the time I’ve been frustrated by the Highlander romances that are such a fixture of the Romance genre; many’s the time they’ve disappointed me by reading essentially like Regency romances in kilts. No such worries in this fantastic romance by Margaret Mallory, which is shot through with the kind of raw-edge savagery that should define this particular sub-genre. The Highlander in question here is massive warrior Rory McKenzie, who’s bringing the disgraced Lady Sybil Douglas on the long and perilous journey to his family castle in order to marry her. Mallory infuses her story with a refreshingly amount of research and historical texture, but her two main characters would feel alive in any setting.
3. Immortal Defender by Lisa Hendrix (InterMix) – As usual with a Lisa Hendrix novel, there’s a lot going on in Immortal Defender, the latest in her “Immortal Brotherhood” series: our hero, Torvald, is a member of a Viking crew that was cursed by a sorceress to live forever as were-beings (in a fairly blatant bit of Romance symbology, Torvald himself becomes a stallion every night!). The story finds him in Tudor England studying with the leading alchemists at the Court of Queen Elizabeth in the hopes of breaking the curse – and it’s here he meets independent widow Josian Delamere, who very nearly steals the whole novel … which is no easy feat, considering the other main character is an immortal Viking were-pony. And the true marvel of the book is that Hendrix remains in complete, smiling control of all this insanity right up until the very satisfying climax.
2. An Improper Arrangement by Kasey Michaels (HQN Books) – Regency-era London is the setting for this first in a new series by the always-delightful Kasey Michaels, in which brusque war hero (and newly-installed Duke) Gabriel Sinclair is ordered by his aunt to escort young heiress Thea Neville through the dances and ballrooms of the “Little Season.” Readers can guess from Page 1 what will happen between this headstrong miss and her broad-shouldered chaperone, but thanks to our author’s vivacious storytelling, the predictability of the plot won’t bother Romance readers one little bit, they’ll be having so much fun.
1. The Earl’s Complete Surrender by Sophie Barnes (Avon) – This latest chapter in Sophie Barnes’ “Secrets at Thorncliff Manor” series ripples along with such skill and joy that it just had to be my pick for Best Romance of 2016: in the labyrinthine vastness of Thorncliff Manor, two people are surreptitiously searching for the same thing – both James, the Earl of Woodford (that’s him you see getting ravished on the novel’s cover, the lucky devil) and Chloe Heartly are both on the hunt for a code-book that’s crucial to uncovering a deadly conspiracy, and when the two reluctantly join forces, Barnes puts the plot in full gallop, to absolutely captivating effect.
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