This past Monday the LimeWire Music Blog posted a list of ten “unsung” country songs, songs that were not the commercial hits of a particular artist but were well worth listening to and should have been more successful. I probably would never have read the blog except for the fact that Trisha Yearwood’s version of Gretchen Peters’s “On a Bus to St. Cloud” was #1 on the list. It’s a favorite of mine, one of those songs that move me to tears every time I listen to them. Some of you know that I love lists, so it should come as no surprise that my mind moved from unsung country songs to their equivalent among romance novels. I thought about those books that get less attention than others by the author or by an author who gets less attention than her work merits but that offer the reader so much that I find it difficult to understand why more people don’t read these books and rave about them.
Jo Beverley, Forbidden Magic (Signet, 2005)
No, I don’t mean Forbidden. Forbidden is part of Beverley’s Company of Rogues series, and it gets lots of attention. Some people love its virginal hero and sexually experienced heroine. Others decry it as a ‘rape book,” but either way, it is read and talked about. Forbidden Magic is a very different book. First it is has lots of humor, more than any other Jo Bev book, I think. Then, it’s a Christmas book, always a plus for me. It also has a touch of the paranormal, not usual fare for Beverley. Finally, the Earl of Saxonhurst is an eccentric and wonderfully engaging hero. He gathers misfits around him including a misogynistic parrot and a superlatively ugly dog, he throws temper tantrums (throw being the operative word since he literally throws bric-a-brac while his servants bet on which ugly object will be destroyed next), and he falls convincingly in love with the heroine after their convenient marriage. Sax is one of my all-time favorite heroes.
Connie Brockway, My Dearest Enemy (Dell, 1998)
My Dearest Enemy is not exactly a forgotten book. After all, it won a RITA in 1999, and I know several people who share my conviction that this is Brockway’s best book. Still, when discussions of Brockway’s work comes up in RL or online conversations, As You Desire and All Through the Night, polar opposites on the angst and darkness scale, are the books most often mentioned. Don’t get me wrong, When Harry Bickered with Dizzy (AYD) is a delightful romance, one I have reread and reread, and All Through the Night is the book against which I measure all wrenchingly emotional, darkly erotic romances, but if my house were on fire and I could save only one Brockway book, I’d reach for My Dearest Enemy. First, I know of no other book that pairs a young, suffragist heroine and a nerd-become-intrepid-explorer hero. Second, it’s in part an epistolary novel, and I love epistolary novels, especially when the letters are as wonderfully witty and genuine as the letters Avery and Lily exchange. When they meet again face-to-face, the sexual tension is superbly done, and the conflicts they must overcome are deftly and credibly developed. The secondary characters are richly drawn. Bernard, the boy who is part of Lily’s unusual household, is near the top of my list of characters whose story I long to read.
Loretta Chase, The Devil’s Delilah (Fawcett, 1990)
I confess that I am a total Loretta Chase fangirl. I think Lord of Scoundrels deserves its place at the top of all-time best romances, the hope of finding another novella as good as “The Mad Earl’s Bride” keeps me reading anthologies, and the Carsingtons are in my top five fictional families. I don’t want to take one iota of praise away from any of Chase’s other books; I just want more people to read and rejoice in The Devil’s Delilah. I thought once of creating a quiz using the choice of a favorite Chase hero to reveal personality. The only problem was I couldn’t choose one favorite Chase hero myself. The best I could do was an eight-way tie. Jack Langdon, the hero of The Devil’s Delilah was among the eight. I can’t resist a bookworm hero, and when you add a pistol-toting heroine with a plan to take care of those she loves, it’s hardly surprising that I find this book a comic gem that should be relished by romance readers everywhere. Delilah’s parents are also marvelous, even more charming than the Carsington parents. From time to time, I consider writing an article on fathers in Chase’s novels. If I ever do so, “Devil” Desmond will definitely feature prominently in the discussion.
Barbara Freethy, Daniel’s Gift (Avon, 1996)
When you think of Barbara Freethy, you may think of her recent secret-filled Angel’s Bay books or one of her character-driven romantic suspense titles (I know that seems oxymoronic) such as All She Ever Wanted or Silent Run, and I’ve read and enjoyed these books. But the first book that comes to mind when I hear her name is Daniel’s Gift, her first book and a 1996 RITA winner. It’s a great example of how a great story can overcome a reader’s prejudices. DG had three strikes against my even reading it: (1) it is a secret baby book, a trope I generally dislike; (2) the hero is a married man, which offends my moral code; and (3) it has a child in jeopardy plot, something I avoid like the plague. But I bought this book back in my pre-internet days, and I chose it because the cover copy promised a reunion romance with a guardian angel, neither of which I could resist. And I loved it! I loved Jenny’s strength and her commitment to providing for her son, I loved Danny, who seemed remarkably similar in his curiosity and determination to the little boys in my life and heart, and I adored Jacob, Danny’s guardian angel. I was much slower warming up to Luke, but I came to understand him—although he remained a distant fourth in my affections. My favorite books are those that move me to both laughter and tears. Daniel’s Gift accomplishes this so well that it’s been on a keeper shelf for more than fourteen years.
Kathleen Gilles Seidel, Till the Stars Fall (Onyx, 1994)
Seidel is an extraordinary writer, and Till the Stars Fall is one of the best romances I have ever read. I’ve lost count now of how many times I’ve read it. Just a few weeks ago, I pulled it off the shelf to find a passage I wanted to use as the Monday Puzzler, a weekly feature on the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn bulletin board, and I ended up reading the full novel yet again. Seidel gives both the Minnesota mining town and the Princeton campus settings a reality that makes me feel as if I know them, although I’ve never visited either place. This book is one of the best examples I know of world building in a contemporary novel. Seidel’s world is so complete that she can include Rolling Stone articles, interviews, and other bits of the culture of the 70s and persuade me that I must have heard Dodd Hall sing the Cinnamon Girl songs. Krissa is one of my favorite heroines because she has the kind of quiet strength that holds together families and communities. She also places a high value on who she is as herself, a rare quality in romance heroine. And Quinn—a Renaissance man who is a musician, a writer, and a doctor—is an irresistible hero. Finally, there’s the wonder that is Seidel’s prose. I wish I could buy a copy of Till the Stars Fall and place it in the hands of every romance reader I know. “Please read it,” I would say, “and see all that a contemporary romance can be.”
What romances do you consider “under-read”? If you could choose one romance to place in the hands of all the romance readers you know, what would your choice be?
Next week I’ll post Part II of Ten Under-read Romance Novels, and I’ll reverse the ratio of contemporaries to historicals. I hope you’ll join me then.