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Best Books of 2014: Romance!

By (December 4, 2014) No Comment

The book-snobs among you – and you know who you are – will no doubt raise an eyebrow at the fact that “Best Romance” is a separate category from “Guilty Pleasures.” “Surely,” such book-snobs will sniff, “all romance novels are guilty pleasures? Surely a genre with no pretensions to literary quality can’t be anything but a guilty pleasure?” But that kind of response only tempts me to abolish the category of “guilty pleasure” (or, if I could somehow manage it, the category of book-snobs), not to lump romances into it. No, this genre is too venerable (the oldest, it bears remembering, in prose fiction), and the ladies who build it are too hard-working; they do more charity-work than Jonathan Franzen has ever heard of, they goof around with their pets more frequently than would ever occur to gloomy old Cormac McCarthy to do, and when you get them together happy and chatting in one room, ye gods can they drink. And, for what it’s worth, their audience is by and large just as hard-working and funny as they are – and the size of that audience dwarfs that of all other genres combined. And – the real point – it takes a good deal of work and skill to write a successful romance novel. If the genre isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip this segment of our thunderous year-end festivities. But on your way out to the cafe to brood over the book you’ve been not-writing for a decade, feel free to send to your adorable and tough mothers and aunts and grandmothers the link to this, the Stevereads Best Romances of 2014:

i adored a lord cover

10. I Adored a Lord by Katharine Ashe (Avon) – The fun of Ashe’s latest installment in her “Prince Catchers” series is how openly she flirts with the hoariest and most shopworn cliches in the book and then just laughingly rises above them. Her story of pert, flirtatious Ravenna Caulfield and sexy, sarcastic Lord Vitor Courtenay, isolated with a matchmaking crowd in a snowbound castle with a murder to solve should dissolve immediately into a murk of lazy writing, but she keeps the whole thing bubbling with energy and humor.

the sharp hook of love cover

9. The Sharp Hook of Love by Sherry Jones (Gallery Books) – Surely the least-promising source material for any romance novel would have to be the ill-fated affair between arrogant older philosophy instructor Peter Abelard and brainy Heloise d’Argenteuil, whose domineering uncle expects her to become one of the great abbesses of twelfth century France, but Jones infuses the story with such intelligence and atmosphere that there’s a heartbreaking moment when you actually find yourself hoping things will work out.

the wickedest lord alive cover

8. The Wickedest Lord Alive by Christina Brooke (St. Martin’s) – Brooke’s smoothly-handled latest novel begins where Regencies used to end: with a marriage. Dissolute Lord Steyne, desperate for some dowry money to settle outstanding debts, marries Lady Alexandra, performs his, er, conjugal duties, and goes about his business. Lady Alexandra wants no more to do with him than he does with her; she moves to the country and spends the next few happy years as Lizzie Allbright, the pastor’s daughter. But fate isn’t done with these two: when Steyne suddenly finds himself in need of an heir, he goes looking for Lizzie – and Brooke’s real story, of two people meeting at the right time instead of the wrong time, takes off.

the viscount who lived down the lane cover

7. The Viscount Who Lived Down the Lane by Elizabeth Boyle (Avon) – In the latest in Boyle’s “Rhymes with Love” series, a horrible cat’s misbehavior brings together bossy-but-adorable Louisa Tempest and wounded-but-salvageable Viscount Wakefield in an exuberant take on “Beauty and the Beast.” You can read my full review here.

the magic between us cover

6. The Magic Between Us by Tammy Falkner (Sourcebooks Casablanca) – Falker’s lighthearted and ultimately touching book does a surprisingly effective job blending the Regency period with the supernatural, this time in the story of two young lovers in the “Fae” world, Marcus Thorne and Cecelia Hewitt, who find themselves abruptly separated when Marcus heeds the call of his human family, who want him to take his place in their world. Both Cecelia and especially Marcus are well-drawn, and Falkner works a good deal of lightly-worn pathos into what might otherwise have been merely Romeo-and-Juliet-with-Pixie Dust.

romancing the duke cover

5. Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare (Avon) – When the daughter of a famous novelist receives a mysterious behest after his death from his aristocratic patron, she hardly imagines that she’ll find herself the owner of a slighly forbidding castle in Northumberland – or at odds with the castle’s rightful owner and current occupant, the brooding Duke of Rothbury. But that’s just what happens to Izzy Goodnight in this sparkling first installment of Dare’s “Castles Ever After” series. You can read my full review here.

shield of winter cover

4. Shield of Winter by Nalini Singh (Berkley Books) – Singh’s novel – the 13th in her “Psy/Changeling” series and brimming with shout-outs and allusions to the vast fantasy tapestry Singh has been weaving for years – shouldn’t have had a chance of getting on this list. After all, it shares so many of the traits that make contemporary “urban fantasy” romances so disagreeable: bare-bones scene-setting, not particularly likable characters (in this case super-powered assassing Vasic and tormented empath Ivy), and heaping helpings of pornography. But Singh’s become sinfully adept at her storytelling: I couldn’t put Shield of Winter down, and after the first few chapters, I didn’t want to.

loving cara cover

3. Loving Cara by Kristen Proby (Pocket Books) – This first of Proby’s “Love Under the Big Sky” series, set in the wide open country of Montana, features beautiful, high-spirited young Cara Donovan, whose come out to the Lazy K ranch owned by incredibly sultry Josh King, who used to tease her when they were kids and is now bowled over by her grown-up beauty. Proby’s fast-paced dialogue alone is worth the price of admission here, and of course it doesn’t hurt that Josh King is portrayed on the book’s cover by an old friend.

the bargain cover

2. The Bargain by Jane Ashford (Sourcebooks Casablanca) – Ashford’s fizzy entertainment centers around Lord Alan Gresham, who’s the sixth son of a Duke and so well out of the pressures of the social world, free to continue his studies at Oxford – until, that is, the Prince Regent asks him to investigate an alleged ghost haunting Carlton House. Also on the case is Ariel Harding, and Ashford has a good deal of fun showing us these two proud characters learning to believe in each other.

captured by a laird cover

1. Captured by a Laird by Margaret Mallory (self-published) – In this first installment in Mallory’s new “Douglas Legacy” series, Lady Alison Douglas, the newly-widowed mistress of Blackadder Castle, is browbeaten by her imperious brothers into marrying David Hume, the so-called “Beast of Wedderburn.” In classic Romance novel fiction, Lady Alison turns out to be much more than Hume expects, and he in his turn is quickly captivated by her spirit. But the real draw in this, the Stevereads best romance novel of 2014, is the strong and insightfully-realized historical knowledge Mallory layers over her tale. It’s a thinking person’s historical romance, and it makes the promise of future volumes extra enticing.