I always enjoy the ‘Best Of’ lists that come out this time of year. Seems to me that kind of potted commentary, however limited, offers a great starting place. So in the spirit of year-end helpfulness, here’s a list of ten romances worth reading. Historical and modern; sexy and mild: they run the gamut. I’m not claiming these are the best of any particular sub-genre, just that they’re worth reading.
1. Truelove Bride, by Shana Abe
One of Abe’s many talents is her understanding of the Middle Ages (during which several of her books are set). While her stories are great romances, the life people lived back then was anything but romantic. Hard, harsh, full of sweat, terror and superstition – this is the world as her characters know it. Truelove is also full of myth and magic, and the myriad ways we try to escape the fates others have chosen for us.
2. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
If you weren’t forced to read this one in school (and if you were, that’s too bad: it’s rarely taught well), this is definitely one of those books to get to one of these days. If it helps, you can tell yourself you’re reading it as social commentary, or as a glimpse into a historical time period, or even as an examination of wit in dialogue. But at it’s core, this is really the story of how two people learn from their mistakes, fall in love, and learn to deal with that – and everything that goes with it. In other words, a romance.
3. Bet Me, by Jenny Crusie
The lightest and frothiest of Crusie’s solo single-title novels, it’s also one of her most satisfying. Possibly because, in true Crusie fashion, she breaks one of the few hard-and-fast rules of the romance genre. To wit: no conflict that can be resolved with a simply conversation is really a conflict. Bet Me starts with a simple misunderstanding, but everything that follows is just so real, readers cannot help but be drawn in. So often we don’t ask that all-important blunt, hard question – because we’re afraid of the answer. A fast and funny read.
4. These Old Shades, by Georgette Heyer
During the era of La Pompadour, the Duke of Avon meets a boy, Leon, in the streets of Paris, whom he takes home to be his page. But Leon is really Leonie, and the Duke, who is playing a very deep game of retribution, finds himself caught up in the oldest game of all. Leonie’s disguise and transformation is deftly handled, but the true pleasure of the book is Avon. He’s sly, incredibly knowing, devastatingly sarcastic and thoroughly unrepentant: he’s one of the first and best modern rakehell heroes.
5. Secret Countess, by Eva Ibbotson
Originally published as Countess Below Stairs, Ibbotson’s delicious post WWI country-house adventure is finally back in print. When Anna Grazinsky goes to work as a housemaid at Mersham manor, no one associated with it, either above or below stairs, will ever be the same. Her effervescent enjoyment of everything life has to changes everyone, for good. Like all of Ibbotson’s adult novels, it is also a brilliant recreation of a time when the world changed forever.
6. Shadowy Horses, by Susanna Kearsley
Archeology in the modern Scottish lowlands: Kearsley postulates a final resting place for the Ninth, the ‘missing’ Roman Legion. The history of it makes for fascinating reading, and her clear, almost transparent prose is perfectly suited to the delicate love story. It also demonstrates why she won the prestigious Cookson prize at such a young age. Bonus: she’s Canadian.
7. Midsummer Moon, by Laura Kinsale
Full of spies and secrecy in the Napoleonic Wars, this is actually a story about engineering. An inventor innocently creates a device that could changes the tides of war forever. A British gentleman is sent to retreive it, when he discovers the inventor is a woman, he brings both creator and creation back to his country home for safekeeping. That sounds rather dry, and doesn’t quite capture the playfulness of Kinsale’s imagination. There’s also a peripatetic hedgehog, and really, what more does one need?
8. Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner
A duellist and scholar meet in Riverside, a city of vice, corruption, intrigue and vengeance. Betrayals, dark secrets; swash and buckle: this novel has it all, plus a sharp and tender love story to anchor it. That the romance is between two men makes it no less sweet. Thankfully, it’s no longer so hard to find: written in the late 80’s, the book was finally reissued in 2003.
9. Sea Swept, by Nora Roberts
Families are not only born, they’re made: by choice and, sometimes, hard work. Sea is the first in her excellent Chesapeake Bay series about three brothers, each of whom was taken into the same family, and the child they come together as adults to care for. It’s also about how our lives shape us, and how our pasts, no matter how horrible, can be overcome. Not ‘gotten over’, not ignored or forgotten: lived with.
10. Archangel, by Sharon Shinn
The Old Testament names nearly put me off, but I’m glad I didn’t let that reflex win. Shinn’s fantasy (well, actually, the astute reader will discern that it’s actually science fiction) is definitely about faith and spirituality. But it’s also about music – Shinn is almost poetic in her description. And at it’s heart, it’s a romance: one in which the love between the two main characters can save – or doom – a whole world. Really.
Chris Szego hopes you have a safe and happy New Year.