Friday, June 29, 2012

Janga’s Ten Best Romance Novels of 2012 So Far (Plus Two Bonus Reads)

It’s almost July, and we’re half way into 2012.  For romance readers, this means that several thousand romance novels have been published this year. Amazon has announced their list of the ten best so far. I’ve only read four on their list. Evidently the Amazon editors love some subgenres that I don’t read at all.

You might think realizing this would make me a more adventurous reader. You’d be wrong. I have over a hundred new books on my Kindle and several dozen more on my print TBR shelf, most of them 2012 pubs and most of them romances. Among the romances, almost without exception, the books are historicals, contemporaries, or books with strong romantic elements. A few are romantic suspense, and I know of a few paranormals I’ll be adding later this year. But mostly I’m loyal to the subgenres I like best. Clearly I’m having problems finding time to read the books I know I want to read; I lack motivation to add those I might not like to the list.

All of this chatter is prefatory to presenting my choices for the ten best romance novels of 2012 for January through June (in alphabetical order by author since it would take more time than I have at the moment to rank order the books). Surprisingly, the Amazon editors and I actually agree on two. :) The comments are excerpted, sometimes slightly modified, from my reviews. I didn’t set out to choose only books I had reviewed, but it worked out that way. Clicking on the titles will take you to the original reviews.

To my top ten, I added two other books that I loved, although neither is labeled “romance novel” in my reading journal. One is a memoir and my favorite book of the year across categories. I’ve read it three times and know I’ll return to it many more times. The other is a YA novel, a rare book that I read solely on the basis of a GoodReads recommendation and loved.

The List

A Weekto Be Wicked, Tessa Dare

I’ve been a Tessa Dare fan since I read and gave top scores to her entries in Avon’s Fan Lit competition. I’ve read and loved the eight novels and two novellas that preceded A Week to Be Wicked, but I think this is her best book yet. Minerva and Colin are both characters who fall within the conventions of romance fiction (the bluestocking and the rake) and yet manage to be fresh and original. They are funny and flawed and completely engaging—an unexpected pairing that, against all odds, feels perfect.

At Your Pleasure, Meredith Duran

Meredith Duran is quite simply one of the best writers I’ve read. Her characterization is superb, her plots compelling, and her prose lucid and powerful. She also offers her readers the gift of difference in a genre more accustomed to sameness. Duran sets At Your Pleasure in England in 1715, the year after the coronation of George I. The possibility of a Jacobite rebellion was real; some scholars believe it was a more serious threat that the rebellion of 1745. Most readers of historical romance fiction are familiar with the rudiments of the latter rebellion, having encountered references to Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Battle of Culloden, and Cumberland’s brutal suppression in novels from Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders to those by Veryan, Gabaldon, Canham, and countless others. The political climate of England in 1715 when Catholics, including Catholic aristocrats, were denied the right to worship, to vote, to be educated is less familiar. Duran captures the realities of the period without slamming her readers in the face with a history book. And she combines historical accuracy with emotionally credible actions and reactions. . . . If you like your romances intense, dark, emotional, and romantic in the truest sense, you will not want to miss At Your Pleasure.

A Gentleman Undone, Cecilia Grant

Like many other readers, I was won over by [A Lady Awakened, Grant’s first book]. I loved Grant’s fresh take on an established trope and her way with language. I fell in love with these same qualities in A Gentleman Undone. It is a darker book than the first one, but voice, style, and a pushing-the-boundaries approach to the conventions of romance fiction are the same. So is the author’s gift for crafting words and sentences that left me giddy with delight over their precision and perfection.

Rainshadow Road, Lisa Kleypas

Lucy and Sam deserve each other. Yes, they have great chemistry, and the novel contains some wonderful love scenes that are a mix of heat, heart, and humor. But they are more than sex partners. They talk to one another, revealing themselves through sharing their histories and their thoughts. They laugh together. They like each other. I don’t want to include spoilers, so I’ll just say there are two incidents in the novel where Kleypas had a choice about what her characters would do, one fairly early in the story and one near the end. In both cases, one choice would have destroyed the book for me. It would have become just another in a long list of books that leave me regretting the book that could have been if only . . . Both times, these characters make the choice that maintains the integrity of the people I have come to believe they are.

Can’t Buy Me Love, Molly O’Keefe

Near the end of the novel, Victoria voices a truth all the characters must learn: “We’re more than our mistakes. . . . More than our pasts. We can be more than the things we let define us.” Once Tara and Luc accept this truth, they can accept their flawed selves and open their hearts to receive the love that is waiting for them. These sentences are thematic not only for Can’t Buy Me Love but also for Molly O’Keefe’s work generally. It is a theme that was present, if less directly articulated, in The Temptation of Savannah O’Neill, the first O’Keefe book I read, a theme I found throughout the backlist I then glommed, and one that resonates in her newest work of category fiction, Unexpected Family.
 Can’t Buy Me Love is a single-title debut worth celebrating. Molly O’Keefe tells a great story that evokes laughter and tears, and she does something more. She reminds her readers of a truth we all need to learn.

No Longer a Gentleman, Mary Jo Putney

Talk about tortured heroes. I found Grey’s transformation during his imprisonment and afterwards persuasive. I thought Cassie, with her history, her courage, and her understanding of the man Grey had become, was the perfect heroine for him. I loved their story!

A Night Like This, Julia Quinn

The second book in the Smythe-Smith series is one of the feel-good romances of the year. It picks up where the last one left off, at the annual family musicale first made famous in Quinn’s beloved Bridgerton series. Once again Quinn does what she does best: she takes a standard Regency plot—governess with a big secret that puts her at risk falls for gallant aristocratic hero—and adds the touches that makes the story uniquely and delightfully hers. Anne is an immensely sympathetic and likeable heroine. Because of a mistake in judgment made when she was very young, she has been barred from all she has known and loved and forced to depend upon her own resources to survive. Life has made her cautious but not bitter, and it has not destroyed her sense of humor.

But Daniel is the star of the book. Horrified by the results of the absurd duel, he accepts responsibility for maiming his friend, although his shooting him was an accident. His affection for his family is unmistakable, and he is the very pattern of a man totally blindsided and inebriated by love.

The Witness, Nora Roberts

It’s a long way from a horse rancher and groomer (Irish Thoroughbred, Nora Roberts’s first published book) to a computer programmer and a cop—more than three decades and two hundred books. But Nora Roberts, the best known romance writer on the planet, has always known “it all goes to character” and work informs character. This book bears Witness to that.

Beguiling the Beauty, Sherry Thomas

Complex, compelling characters, an unusual and emotionally powerful plot, and prose with the range and beauty of music—what more can a reader ask for? Maybe more of the same. I am confident that’s what Thomas will provide in the next two books in her first series. My recommendation is to put Beguiling the Beauty on your must-buy list, and while you’re at it, you should add Ravishing the Heiress (Millie and Fitz’s story, July 3) and Tempting the Bride (Helena and her hero’s story, October 2).

Overseas, Beatriz Williams
Just a week or so before I read Overseas, I commented to a friend that the idealistic Brooke, whom poet W. B. Yeats reputedly described as “the handsomest young man in England,” would make a wonderful model for a romance hero. I felt as if Julian were a gift in response. I loved him. I loved the book. If you are a romantic who believes that love can be eternal, I predict you’ll love it too. My only complaint is that I really wanted to read the full poem that gives the book its title. A few lines just weren’t enough for this romantic. I don’t think I’ve ever before recommended a time travel romance (not even Gabaldon, whose books I couldn’t read—sacrilege, I know), but I definitely recommend this one.

A Bonus Duo

Paris in Love, Eloisa James
Underlying all of the last things, of course, is her consciousness that life itself is ephemeral. “Along with the rest of humankind,” she writes, “I inherited faulty genes, all of which are programmed to die.” But in the meantime, there is life to be lived with love and grace, memories to make for the next generation, and time to be spent generously and wasted extravagantly. Looking back on the year her family spent in Paris, James draws a conclusion about what she, Alessandro, Luca, and Anna learned: “We learned to waste our moments—together.”

I consider the time I spent reading Paris in Love thrice time well spent. James gave me Paris, she sent me back to the poetry of Auden, and she reminded me that lazy moments now and then do not disturb the universe.

Good for You, Tamarra Webber
I loved Good for You with its out-of-control, hot celebrity hero and VBS-teaching, Habitat-for-Humanity volunteering heroine. I haven’t reviewed this one, but for those of you who read YA, I highly recommend it.

How many of Amazon's list have you read? How many of my list have you read? What's on your best of 2012 list so far?
Note: I tried posting covers with the descriptions of the books, but they kept messing up. My knowledge of html code is minimal, and I couldn't fix the problem. The covers do appear on the links.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday Review: Thief of Shadows

Thief of Shadows
Maiden Lane Book #4
By Elizabeth Hoyt
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Release Date: June 26, 2012

Winter Makepeace is a man with a purpose. An puritanical, dour man whose spirit often seems as dark and devoid of pleasant ornamentation as the clothes he wears, he is focused on good works, specifically the responsibilities of a schoolmaster and the management of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children, located in London's most notorious slum, which was founded by his late father. Only a select few know that Winter Makepeace has another identity.  Under cover of night, he wears a mask and the patchwork costume of a harlequin and wanders London’s most dangerous streets as the Ghost of St. Giles, armed to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from the evil that stalks them.

Lady Isabel Beckinhall most unexpectedly finds herself involved with both the Ghost and the manager of the Home. After Winter misses his appointment to tour the new orphanage with her as a representative of the Lady’s Syndicate for the Benefit of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children, Isabel leaves the orphanage and happens upon the Ghost wounded and unconscious in the road with rioters and officials in pursuit of the man who cut Charming Mickey O’Connor down from the gallows. She rescues him, hides him from those who would harm him, and takes him to her home where she takes care of his injuries. Fascinated by the mysterious and disturbingly masculine Ghost, she is both relieved and disappointed when he is gone the next morning. When some members of the Lady’s Syndicate decide that Winter lacks the necessary polish to associate with the genteel company he will be required to associate with at the teas, balls, and musicales the Home’s new benefactresses will sponsor and that his gaucherie will reflect poorly on the benefactresses, Isabel somehow is charged with seeing that Winter acquires the necessary polish to maintain his position as manager of the Home.

Thrown together by these circumstances, Isabel and Winter are unprepared for the desire that leaves them all too conscious of one another. On the surface, the two have nothing in common. She is an aristocrat to her fingertips. He is the son of a brewer. She lives a life of wealth and privilege. He lives among the refuse of society. She is frivolous and flirtatious. He is serious and sober. She is experienced, He is virginal. Yet neither can deny the delight they find in their witty exchanges or the sensual connection that intensifies with each meeting.

But both Winter and Isabel are more than they seem. He is a creature divided, not just by his dual identities but also by the dark animal he senses within him that must be controlled with great care and released only to fight the battles that consume the Ghost. Isabel hides wounds she barely acknowledges even to herself, and she is more intelligent and compassionate that is willing to admit. I loved this passage:

It hardly mattered. She was tired of waiting for him to acknowledge who he was. Tired of donning a false mask of gaiety when she was so much more—felt so much more—beneath. No one had ever noticed her mask. No one but him. If he couldn’t or wouldn’t make the first move, then damn it, she would.

Hoyt once again weaves together the glittering world of Georgian aristocracy with the darkness of its hidden sins of omission and commission and gives the reader another unforgettable story of multifaceted characters shaped by their complex world but possessing hearts and souls that make them unique beings. She balances the grimness of a world where children are prey with a world where love can redeem and transform. I know of no other writer who possesses Hoyt’s gift for combining love scenes so hot they seem to scorch the pages—or melt the screen, as the case may be—with a rigorous morality of human responsibility. All this and she still manages moments that make me laugh.

I’ve been reading Hoyt since The Raven Prince, and I think each successive series has gained in complexity and power. Thief of Shadows is the best of an excellent series. I highly recommend it.  And Lord of Darkness in which the Ghost of St. Giles still roams is scheduled for release on February 26, 2012. Make a note of it. I know you don’t want to miss Godric St. John’s story. It's already on my book calendar.

Regency historicals remain the most popular, but Georgians have many devoted fans. I've enjoyed them since I first read Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades decades ago. Do you like Georgian romances? What is your favorite Georgian series?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Special Monday Review: How to Be a Proper Lady

How to Be a Proper Lady
Falcon Club Book #2
By Katharine Ashe
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: June 26, 2012

Viola Carlyle was only ten years old when her biological father, Fionn Daly, abducted her from the Devonshire estate where she had spent the first decade of her life as the cherished daughter of a baron, Lord Carlyle, and his lady wife. Fifteen years later, Viola is Violet la Vile, captain of the April Storm, an American privateer vessel sailing for the state of Massachusetts. Beautiful, confident in her position, adored by her crew, she has buried lingering memories of her other life.

Jinan Seton owes Alex Savege (Captured by a Rogue Lord) his life twice over: the first time when he bought the freedom of the child Jin who had been sold into slavery and the second time when he had taken an angry, self-destructive adolescent aboard the Cavalier and given him a chance to grow to manhood. Alex’s purpose now it to make his wife happy, and Serena Savege clings to the belief that her younger sister Viola is alive. Nothing would add more to Serena's happiness with Alex that a reunion with her sister. Nothing will keep Jin from finding Viola Carlyle and returning her to the family who loves her. He will use all the skills honed in service to the Falcon Club to complete this search and repay his debt to Alex.

Even Captain Violet la Vile’s sinking his beloved Cavalier and having him thrown in an American jail doesn’t lessen his determination to see her become Viola Carlyle again and restored to her rightful place. If he has to sign on as her second-in-command, he will; if he has to accept a wager that she can make him fall in love with her to get her safely back to England, he will. But Jin has no idea how that wager will test him nor the price it will exact from him. And Viola has no idea that the infamous Pharaoh whose ship she sank successfully will come to rule her heart and threaten the world she has carefully constructed to replace what she lost.

Katharine Ashe continues to intrigue readers with her Falcon Club series by creating extraordinary characters with histories that set them apart from run-of-the-mill heroes and heroines and endowing these characters with intelligence, courage, and humor. Viola and Jin are memorable characters. I was rooting for them both from the beginning.

The second part of the story could easily have seemed anticlimactic once Viola and Jin arrive in England, but Ashe adds sufficient complications to keep her readers engaged. Neither the plot nor the relationship between Viola and Jin loses steam. And while I admit to some uneasy moments when Viola's feelings for Jin seem to have diminished her admirable capabilities as an intelligent, independent woman, in the end she shows that the spirit of Violet la Vile is still alive.
Pirates seem to be enjoying a new surge in popularity, and How to Be a Proper Lady, despite its title, combines enough of the old school dash with a more contemporary flavor to be a welcome addition to the lists. If you’ve read Captured by a Rogue Lord and When a Scot Loves a Lady, you definitely don’t want to miss this one. If you haven’t read Ashe before, you will appreciate this book, especially if you like pirate stories or if you like variety in your romances. I think the book works well as a standalone, although you may miss some of the nuances. 

Falcon Club membership is now down to three. I’m wondering of that means three more books. I’m particularly eager to know more of Colin Gray and “Lady Justice.”

How do you feel about pirate books? Do you have a favorite?

Friday, June 22, 2012

All Summer Long: A Review

All Summer Long
Fool’s Gold #9
By Susan Mallery
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: July 31, 2012

Clay Stryker, the youngest of May Stryker’s sons, like his brothers, returns to Fool’s Gold to create a home where his mother and brothers have settled. He has known a great love, but with her death, he thinks that part of his life is over. He’s made a fortune as an underwear model and a butt double in movies, but at thirty, he wants to do something different with his life. He wants to become a contributing member of the Fool’s Gold community. 

His plan is to buy two hundred acres bordering the Castle Ranch on which he would grow hay and alfalfa for all the Stryker animals and organic fruits and vegetables to sell. Much of the labor would be done by Haycationers, families who pay to stay in comfortable quarters while they spend time together and rediscover a simpler way of life, living like it was the 19th century only with indoor plumbing and internet access. With a degree in business, an apprenticeship in farm management, and a business plan that even impresses Rafe the mogul, he has the credentials to make his plan a success.  He also plans to become a volunteer firefighter.

Charlie Dixon is a firefighter. She enjoys her job and knows that she’s good at it. She has friends who love her, and she’s found a place to belong in Fool’s Gold. Charlie doesn’t bother with makeup or hairstyles or dresses. She has little confidence in herself as a woman. She grew up feeling gangly and graceless, the antithesis of her beautiful, delicate mother, a world famous ballerina who has never hesitated to let Charlie know that she fails in every way to be the daughter her mother wanted. Charlie’s sense of inadequacy as a female was strengthened by an incident with a date when she was in college, an incident that changed her in significant ways. She has never thought she wanted children, but she’s changing her mind. But first she has a problem to solve, and Clay Stryker may be just the problem solver she needs
I loved this book! It’s my favorite in the series. Both Clay and Charlie are wonderful characters, richly drawn with layers of complexity and genuine likeability. Tomboy Charlie has been an appealing character since she was introduced in the 2011 FG trilogy. She became more appealing as she played a larger secondary role in Summer Days and Summer Nights, and she is a terrific heroine of her own story. She’s smart, delightfully sarcastic, and fiercely loyal to her friends, and in All Summer Long, the reader discovers all these vulnerabilities that make her even more special.

Clay, of course, is fantastic looking, but he’s much more than just a hot hunk. He’s strong, intelligent, and gentle with a great sense of humor, unexpected sensitivity, and genuine niceness. The latter is a quality that is sometimes underrated. His feelings about his dead wife and his past conflict with Rafe give him depth, but it is his understanding of what it means to be judged by appearance that makes him an unusual hero. Romance fiction is filled with beautiful heroines who are objectified and written off as lacking value beyond their beauty; it is much rarer to find a hero in this role.

Even Charlie at first judges him by his looks. When Clay tells her that he wants to volunteer as a firefighter, she dismisses him: “The pose was powerful, his body well defined. He looked like a model in a shoot. Probably not a stretch for him. He’d spent the past decade looking good. No doubt his idea of a hard day was having to get a spray-on tan and a haircut. Pretty, but useless, she thought.” 

Once Charlie moves past this unfair assessment and begins to know Clay, the two are great together. Their love scenes may be the best that Susan Mallery has ever written. They are not just steamy scenes; they are also scenes that reveal truths about these lovers and the relationship that is developing between them—the best kind of love scene.

Charlie’s relationship with her mother adds another interesting layer to the story. It is easy to dismiss Dominique as a cold, cruel, self-absorbed bitch who doesn’t deserve the name of mother. Some of her actions approach the unforgivable, and the resolution may be a bit simplistic. But Mallery makes us understand something of why she has been the person she has been, and when Charlie needs her at the end, she comes through beautifully.

And speaking of endings, this one is guaranteed to bring a joyful sigh to romantic readers. If you’ve never read Susan Mallery, start with this book. It is Mallery at her finest. I highly recommend it.  As for me, I loved my visits to Fool’s Gold, even if not all of them were perfect. I’m already eager to return again for the story of Evangeline, the sister of Rafe, Shane, and Clay Stryker.

Mallery takes readers to Fool's Gold four times this summer. These four stories offer readers a doctor, a business mogul, a cowboy, and a model as heroes. One study revealed that doctors were the most popular heroes of contemporary romance with cowboys in second place. I can think of many mogul heroes, but Clay is the first underwear model I remember. Do you think the professions of heroes matter? Do you have favorites?