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It is no secret I enjoy romance novels, but I largely do it in the same way I do cotton candy - it's sweet, quick, and forgotten as soon as consumed. However, there are some that escape that oblivion, that I adore and keep and reread and think are very very good. Below the cut are my 15 favorites, in no order.

Two notes: First, I didn't put any Georgette Heyer or Patricia Veryan on this because otherwise the list would be solely them. And the other note is that this list, like any list, reflects my personal preferences - I prefer period romances to contemporary ones, I like my romance explicit and also am very fond of h/c. The choices below rather reflect that.



1 Kathleen Givens, Kilgannon/Wild Rose of Kilgannon - Even though these are two novels, it is pretty much one continuous book which was split up by the publishers due to size, so it counts as one. The books follow Mary Lovell and Alex MacGannon, who fall in love and marry shortly before the Rebellion of 1715. Like a lot of books on this list, these follow an established relationship facing the world - the Rebellion fails quickly and ignominiously and even though Alex was reluctant to join, he is one of the most high-born leaders and thus the Crown plans to make an example of his trial for treason. So very English and equally high-born Mary throws everything she has into an attempt to save him.

If I had to pick my favorite romance novel of all time, the book that is Kilgannon/WRoK would be it. In some ways, it is more a period novel with a strong romantic storyline than a 'proper' romance - there are complicated plots and a strong sense of the period. I have rarely loved protagonists the way I do Mary and Alex - they are both supremely mature and functional and good and smart and gorgeous (Mary is my ultimate girlcrush) and I believe that they are each other's whole world, but they force themselves to carry on no matter the loss for the sake of others. Also, like a lot of books on this list, it has an 'us against the world' theme which I adore. And it manages to be rather understated while conveying all the emotion or all the horrible things that happen - unlike some other authors, Givens does not go into detail of e.g. Alex's torture for information or even the lovemaking scenes, but oddly, it's more potent for being alluded to more than seen.

2 Fiona Walker, Kiss Chase - except for 'How to Kill a Rock Star' and 'Beautiful Disaster' below, this is the only contemporary on this list (also, neither this nor Rock Star would traditionally be labeled romances - you find them in the 'fiction' section. But I think the label fits). KC uses one of my favorite tropes - two damaged people finding hope and compatibility in each other. Phoebe's bullied childhood and distant parents left her with any lack of interest in permanency - an affair with a married man is about all she's emotionally good for. But then her childhood nemesis but later sort-of-friend Saskia gets her heart brutally broken by the gorgeous, utterly damaged by horrific childhood Felix Sylvain, and guilts Phoebe into an insane scheme to get Felix to like her so she can dump him and show him how bad being heart-broken is. Phoebe doesn't really stick to plan but the longer she and Felix spend together, the more they discover their crazy damage fits together and the two of them might actually have a chance at a functional relationship. I like every Fiona Walker book I read but KC is by far my favorite. In part, it is because of the heroine - Phoebe may be damaged by her upbringing, but she's strong, fearless, opinionated and someone I might consider switching my sexual orientation for. Whenever she and Felix are together, the sparks are insane. And then there is Felix, who I started the book by hating but ended up loving by the end and desperately hoping it would work out - Felix is beyond damaged and deals with it, in part, by spreading the pain, and I love that the book explains but never excuses. Together they are crazy and sexy and desperate and just...guuuuuuuuh.

3 Susan Enoch, England's Greatest Hero - ummmm, I think this whole list is a testament to my love of h/c, and few books are as good about it as this book. Lucinda Barrett, the commonsense daughter of Gen. Barrett has decided on a life plan. With her two best friends married, she thinks it's time for her to settle down as well. She wants a peaceful life and a husband who is someone who is of the right rank, socially popular, and is also a military man who gets along well with her army-obsessed father. All of this leaves out Robert Carroway, brother-in-law of her best friend. Robert used to be a socially popular and liked army officer but that was before he returned from the Napoleonic Wars almost dead. Even though it's been three years since Waterloo, he never comes into society, barely interacting even with his loving an anxious family. He has never mentioned what happened to him, but seeing his awful PTSD, it couldn't have been good. But somehow, he strikes a conversation, of sorts, with Lucinda and the story goes from there...

Both the heroine and hero are pretty unusual - heroine is full of common-sense (no silly misunderstandings for her) and knows what she wants. She is so very practical - even when she falls for the hero she takes time to think whether he is the one she wants to marry because she needs to make sure the life with him will be the kind she wants. A heroine who actually thinks things through *gasp*! Hero is someone who suffers from horrible PTSD (a potential trigger warning here - while I have never had PTSD, I used to be prone to panic attacks when I was much younger and both the symptoms and the ways of coping so you won't start screaming in public that Enoch describes are very very accurate for my experience - it brought back some unpleasant memories) but there is no wallowing in what caused it (I think there is about a half-a-page explanation - unlike other authors - coughKenyoncough - Enoch sees no need to lovingly describe torture type stuff) and it's quite lovely to read about him climbing out of the pit slowly and realistically. Plus, he is just such a good person. I think romance novels are dreadfully bereft of heroes who are just good people, not someone in need of any reform. The love story is just so satisfying and with a slow steady progression and lovely. Nothing gets magically fixed but it does get better. I wanted to squish my Kindle to me by the end.

4 Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm - unlike most romance novels, even romance novels on this list, I would consider this genuine literature. The plot is highly unusual - a brilliant and rakish aristocrat suffers an early stroke and is confined to an insane asylum as people of the period do not understand his resulting behavior. His salvation comes in the form of the Quaker daughter of one of his scientific collaborationists - she ends up being his one hope for future and sanity.

Normally, little here would appeal - Quakers are as removed from my normal behavior as the moon and I usually avoid romances with severely handicapped heroes (hey, romance novels are about kinks and we all have our own). But so many people recommended it to me that I took a chance and ended up so in love I felt total reluctance to finish because I did not want to part with these people. The prose is gorgeous, the hothouse of emotion is almost unbearable, the slow recovery of the hero and equally slow discovery of her own heart by the heroine are exquisite, but ultimately, I just ended up desperately caring for these people and rooting for them and hoping for them to find happiness and peace. I was literally crying at some of the pages just from sheer excess of emotion.

5 Sherrilyn Kenyon, Born of Silence - OK, the hero of this does have the most ridiculous romance novel name ever (Darling Cruel. Do not ask) but the novel itself is top-notch. It's a space opera with insane levels of hurt/comfort (it's Kenyon so I assume trigger warnings for extreme torture and sexually/physically abused past on part of hero are unnecessary. But seriously - if you are at all squeamish, stay away, this almost maxed me out and it never happens), a nifty plot, a tough-as-nails heroine, an incredibly damaged hero you can't help but root for, and a cool secondary cast (Darling's best friend Maris = LOVE). Darling may seem like an effete prince brutally controlled by his uncle but his alter-ego is a legendary freedom-fighter. It is his alter ego who dates and loves Zarya, the leader of the resistance. He comes up with a plan to finally liberate his planet but it goes horrifically awry and instead he is subjected to horrifying, months-long torture by the very people he fought for. It doesn't help that he believes (wrongly but reasonably) that the sole person he ever loved betrayed him in the worst way. Eventually he gets rescued, but since Darling was already tap-dancing on the edge of sanity before, he snaps and goes to the dark side with a vengeance. Only Zarya can bring him out of it...or can she?

Anyway, I love love love love this book. The heroine is incredibly tough and together and no-nonsense, the hero is an utter wreck (I think he wins 'worst background in romance novel' award hands-down by about a million miles) but yet with gritted-teeth integrity no matter what, and while this has insane levels of hurt, it also provides plenty of comfort. Plus, the hero builds a tower of skulls of his enemies at the gateway of his palace. What's not to love?

6 Christina Dodd, The Prince Kidnaps a Bride - First off, let's clear something. Despite the weird title, there is no kidnapping going on. I am not sure where the title came from, but I am not the publisher. Basically, Sorcha is one of the 'lost princesses' - three princesses who were dispersed when the revolution came to her tiny kingdom. She's led a sheltered convent existence (why is explained in the book and is a spoiler) but all of it is about to change when a one-eyed, rather simple fisherman named Arnou shows up at the convent and offers to spirit her away from the suddenly-present danger. From then on, Sorcha cross-dresses, fights ruffians, hangs out with prostitutes, and oh, yeah, falls for simple and unsuitable but always loyal Arnou. One problem - what Sorcha does not know but we, the readers, do is that Arnou is actually Rainger (with two working eyes :P), the deposed prince of a neighboring kingdom who desperately needs support to overturn the usurper running his country and who's struck a bargain with Sorcha's grieving but filthy-rich grandmother - if he finds and marries one of the three princesses and brings her back home, grandma will give him access to her considerable wealth to fund an army. Rainger is smart, ruthless, far from simple but he is also hopelessly falling for Sorcha, which was not necessarily in the plan, especially since Sorcha remembers him, if at all, from their mutual childhoods as a spoiled weak bully (which, to be fair, he was, until he was betrayed, deposed, jailed and tortured which I guess helps to build character).

I love this book because it's a very fun yarn and hella sexy to boot. There are adventures galore, fast pace, and an OTP that is oddly functional in their dysfunction (there is some requisite awful past of the hero (which really IS awful) but the book is not mired in gloom in the least). Plus, I would SO do Rainger, so there.

7 Gaelen Foley, The Duke - Belinda, a novice courtesan with a traumatic past, and Robert, the very proper young Duke, begin a relationship for far from usual reasons - he needs her to flush out a killer, but as the story progresses, this blossoms into so much more.

Gaelen Foley rarely works for me, but when she does - oooooh boy. I reread The Duke entirely too many times. I do like the plot (and the fact that it has a plot), and I like Belinda a lot - coping excellently with things that would sink a lesser person yet not martyr-like or saintly or dull. But what really gets me is Robert and the love story. Robert is one of the vanishingly rare number of romance heroes who I think would make a great partner in real life. When is the last time you had an aristocratic hero who was functional and well-adjusted, politically involved, listening to his conscience and driven by a strong sense of social and familial duty, all without being a bore or silly paragon or hiding a horrifically traumatic past? Yeah, never. (Sadly, I think this is the only time Foley herself went that route too). And the love story is hot and sweet and with surprisingly real problems (aside from killers :P) and equally real hesitations and is just so utterly tender. I adore adore this book.

8 Anna Campbell, Captive of Sin - Lady Charis escapes from her abusive stepbrothers who seek to marry her off for her fortune and is rescued by Gideon Trevithik, a recently returned 'acclaimed war hero' who is more messed-up than any hero I've come across all year, or close. For one, he cannot bear to be touched by anyone. But of course, it's a romance novel...I adored this book mainly because this is pretty much one x-rated hurt/comfort fantasy. If ever a novel catered specifically to my kinks, this is it - mmmmm, so perfect. Also, it's a good character piece - Charis and Gideon both feel very real and are just such very good people - genuinely good and noble despite some horrible stuff in their past. Sometime I just want to read about hot, good people having amazingly hot healing sex to cure the man out of his inability to touch anyone. Mmmm.

9 Gaelen Foley, The Pirate Prince - And that is why I keep reading Foley books. Most of them don't work for me, but when they do (as it does here and in The Duke), she hits it out of the park. This combines pirates/sworn family enemies/hidden royalties tropes into one delicious, super-angsty mix. Prince Lazar of the tiny fictional kingdom of Ascencion (think Corsica) is the only survivor of the murdered royal family. He escaped when he was 13 and now, at 28, as a ruthless powerful pirate, he returns - not to rule the place or anything, mind you. He merely wants to complete his vendetta against the Monteverdi clan, whose head murdered his family and now runs the country. He plans the loot the place blind, execute all the Monteverdis, and make the Governor suffer by killing his beloved daughter in front of his eyes. And later, with his mission complete, he can finally kill himself. Yeah, Lazar is a dysfunctional suicidal mess. That is why I like this book. You know me and trainwrecks. Only his plans go awry when he meets Allegra Monteverdi - the target daughter in question - who is smart, fearless, is all about justice and reform, and with a hidden crush on the martyred boy-prince (and certainly won't believe this psycho is the same person, grown-up version). And so it goes, with them embarking on a passionate, dysfunctional, codependent relationship...Anyway, Lazar is mmmmm and Allegra is my girl-crush (she knifes the Big Bad in this and rescues Lazar, without bothering to dwell even for a second that she killed a man, how is that for a change of pace?) I love this one much too much!

10 Tina St. John, Black Lion's Bride - Hero is a crusader on the second crusade (the one with Richard the Lionheart). Heroine - assassin for a Muslim sect. She infiltrates his house to have access to and be able to kill the Lionheart, but the unexpected happens and she falls in love, driven by his goodness to her, but still plans to carry out her mission.

I love this because the heroine is super-tough, great fighter, yet feminine and not just a 'man in skirts' stereotype. And because the hero is so breathtakingly decent that he would be amazing in real life. Imagine, a woman falling for a man because he's a good person! There is also an exciting plot, the ever-present danger (each gets branded a traitor by their respective side for caring/helping and deals with it without a murmur) and overall it's just a really good read.

11 Marsha Canham, Blood of Roses - This is a sequel to The Pride of Lions, which I was indifferent to (and which you needn't read to enjoy this). But this sequel - Oh my God. BoR continues the story of Alexander Cameron, a Scottish aristocrat, and Catherine Ashnrooke, an English noblewoman. Catherine, who's lost her spoiled shallowness and Alexander, who's lost his indifference to the world under the influence of love, are now married but the year is 1745 and he sends her back to England and safety. Only Catherine has other plans. This is pretty much my perfect epic romance - it features a couple against the world, bloody battles, gorgeous reunions, hurt/comfort, angst and just a marvelous marvelous larger-than-life couple it is impossible not to love.

12 Jeannie Lin, The Dragon and the Pearl - this follows a growing, reluctant on both sides, complicated relationship between the former concubine of a dead Tang emperor and a powerful warlord who took her into his house to protect her from those who seek to assassinate her but also to discover the secrets she holds. They both climbed to the top from the gutter in very different ways, and both are reluctant to open up in any way, but perhaps it is that similarity that makes there attraction all the more potent.

I love this!!! This should be a cdrama! The writing is gorgeous and I love the melancholy, introspective feel of this. Both the leads are complex and ambiguous and with more secrets than a person should have, with different philosophies of life which still result in them expecting nothing out of the future (though the conflict of their paths is organic) and the whole story is as delicate and tentative as their relationship. It's a gorgeous gorgeous book that made me cry and there are really no words for how much I love it.


13 Tiffany DiBartolo, How to Kill a Rock Star - this is not really a romance novel but it sort of is. It follows the relationship between Paul, the musician who could be a rock star if he only knew how to bend and Eliza, a music journalist obsessed with rock music since a particular song saved her after a suicide attempt. The narration alternated between Paul and Eliza, each narrating an alternating chapter.

Needless to say, I love the writing style and I also love the passion about music (though I am pretty much a music heathen myself). I also love the complicated, complex, quirky, eminently moving relationship between Paul and Eliza both of whom are alienated, wounded, weird but find salvation with each other. There are bits that made me cry and the ending turned me into an utter ecstatic giddy mess.

14 Jamie McGuire, Beautiful Disaster - The only college romance in the list! Abby, the seeming good girl, and Travis, the ultimate bad boy of their small college, strike an unlikely friendship that slowly blossoms into love and all-consuming passion. But with Travis' issues, Abby's problems with commitment (and secrets of her own) and life in general, can young love endure?

This is so ridiculously romantic, I swoon I swoon I swoon. If you like heroes who literally cannot live without (tough, awesome, at first commitmentphobic) heroine, this is the book for you. Travis and Abby are sort of codependent but functional at the same time and I couldn't stop reading about them. So many favorite scenes, so good! Think of a book version of Tres Metros Sobre el Cielo only with a happy ending!

15. Meljean Brook, The Iron Duke - TID is set in a dystopian alternate universe Victorian England. In that universe, the Horde conquered and ruled England for the last two centuries with the help of injected nanobugs which controlled the population and supressed emotions. The Horde also modified those under its rule so it's not uncommon to see people who are part automatons. But recently the Horde has been kicked out of England and the population is only now starting to adjust to freedom.

The protagonist of the novel, despite the name, is female. Inspector Mina Wentworth is part-Horde and is never allowed to live this down, despite her participation in the Rebellion. Mina is reserved, tough as hell, and dedicated to investigating murders. Unfortunately, the latest murder investigation involves the Iron Duke - Rhys Trahaearn - once an exile and pirate, but now the man acclaimed throughout England as one who defeated the Horde. Someone literally dumped a dead body, unidentifiable and without any visible cause of death, on his doorstep. As Mina doggedly continues her investigation and her interactions with the Duke, who is not one who lets a threat go easily, she gets drawn deeper and deeper into what seems to be a conspiracy to control England itself, once again.

I love the grim but fascinating world Brooks created. I love Mina - she is beyond freaking awesome (think a Victorian Aeryn Sun. She really reminds me of her) and ridiculously competent and emotionally closed off and just - guuuuuuh. I also adore Rhys - someone with a past much worse than Mina's who does not allow it to control his drive. The love story between these two very strong, very damaged people is ridiculously sexy and very messed up and incredibly sweet. I was madly upset when the book ended and I had to leave them.

Currently reading: Kinley MacGregor, Sword of Darkness - This is another pseudonym of Sherrilyn Kenyon and it shows in the narrative style - lots of darkness, screwed up pasts, major sexiness, tough ladies and damaged men etc. This is a medieval fantasy - set a few centuries after the fall of Camelot at the damned and evil court of Morgan Le Fey (spelled 'Morgen' here) who sends her champion, basically the evil version of King Arthur, called the Kerrigan, to bring her Seren - the future mother of the reincarnation of Merlin, in order to prevent the triumph of the good and plunge the world in darkness. Only, of course, Kerrigan finds himself feeling something for the first time in centuries and actually falls in love. There is a lot of adventure, hot make-outs, a verrrrrry cool fantasy world, and MacGregor is very good at doing damaged, genuinely dark men who nonetheless manage not to act as utter scumbags to the heroine.
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dangermousie

November 2012

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