As usual, I look back at a reading year and think what a wonderful year it was. This year I read 336 romances, most of them published in 2013. (I didn’t count rereads.) Were some of them disappointments? Of course, they were, and frankly, some of them were not books I’d recommend to anyone. But most of them were books I enjoyed, books that left me feeling as if the time I invested in reading them was well spent. About 20 percent of them were keepers, books I know I will read again—or, in some cases, have already read a second time. And those keepers were scattered throughout the year, so there was never a period longer than a week or so when I was not happily reading romance.
Pardon me for waxing sentimental, but this reading retrospective also reminded me of the huge debt of gratitude I owe to the many authors whose books enriched my life, expanded my world, and moved me to tears, laughter, and reflection. So from those that I’ve been reading for three decades or close to it to those who debuted in 2013 and all those between those two points, thank you. I look forward to the books you will bring your readers in the new year.
Before I comment on my top thirteen, I should add that I broke my own rule this year. When after much thought, I cut my keeper list to ten, I realized that I cut three from the list not because I thought they were less worthy of a “best” recognition than the ten that remained but because they were written by dear friends. I decided that wasn’t a good enough reason to refrain from saying these were among my favorite reads of the year, and each is a book I love doubly: once because it is a story that captivated and delighted me and once because it was written by someone I am privileged to call my friend. Anyway, it seemed fitting to have a top thirteen for 2013 (presented in order of publication). Maybe next year I’ll have a top fourteen.
The Autumn Bride, Anne Gracie (February 5)
Nobody combines humor and poignancy better than Gracie. I loved everything about this book—the “sisters” who create a family out of affection and need, the hero as disillusioned boy and as honorable man, and the gallant, all together wonderful Lady Beatrice, who almost steals the book from the lovers.
The Best Man, Kristan Higgins (February 26)
Kristan Higgins gives readers a story that combines scenes worthy of a twenty-first-century Lucille Ball with scenes that will have readers reaching for a hanky to catch the tears. And it’s a reunion romance with a twist! I love that. Higgins just keeps getting better
Sweet Madness, Heather Snow (April 2)
The best book in a strong series! I especially like Heather Snow's heroines, not a cookie-cutter miss in the group. Lady Penelope Bridgeman combines pragmatism, empathy, and a rare knowledge of early psychological theory. An original heroine, a heart-capturing hero, and a fresh approach—that’s a recipe for a winner.
Meant to Be, Terri Osburn (May 21)
Beth and Joe are both truly honorable people. They don’t merely give lip service to the idea of honor; they make difficult choices based on it. The attraction between them is immediate and powerful, but they refuse to act on it. Integrity is a quality I value in life and in fiction, and these characters have it, in both its meaning, in rich measure.
Once Upon a Tower, Eloisa James (May 28)
No matter what else I love about a romance novel, it can never reach my top tier of favorites if the ending fails to leave me believing that the love of the H/H is the kind that can survive all the blows life will deliver. The ending of OUAT leaves me with this feeling with no reservations. The romantic gesture is perfect, the luscious frosting on the very best cake.
It Happened One Midnight, Julie Anne Long (June 25)
The heroine Tommy makes a distinction between love and romance. She, like the hero Jonathan, has come to understand that love ennobles the giver and renders meaningful small, daily expressions. It Happened One Midnight is deeply romantic, but even better, it is a heart-shatteringly beautiful love story with a sigh-evoking HEA.
In the Arms of the Heiress, Maggie Robinson (July 2)
Funny, poignant, and sexy, this book has all the charm of a classic screwball comedy with more substance. Charles is a tortured hero, a type that Robinson creates with great skill, but the specifics of his working-class history, the horrific details of his experience in South Africa, and his unique combination of angst and humor make him distinctly individual. Louisa is a darling. I fell for her on the second page.
Why Dukes Say I Do, Manda Collins (July 30)
I think the importance of shared laughter receives too little attention in romance fiction despite a sense of humor often showing up among the ideal qualities readers look for in heroes and heroines. Shortly after they laugh together, Isabella and Ormonde also find out that they can talk to one another. By the end of their first extended conversation, they have shared bits of their pasts and their opinions on a variety of topics—the way people tend to do when they are learning to know one another. How refreshing to spend time with a hero and heroine who laugh together and engage one another in real conversation.
The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, Lauren Willig (August 6)
I loved that this is a love story between two people over the age of forty, multi-dimensional people who have their share of baggage, who have made their share of mistakes, and who have developed quite effective personae that allow the world to see only what they want seen. I love that their romance is sweet and funny and passionate.
Sometimes a Rogue, Mary Jo Putney (August 27)
I loved these characters, and I loved watching their growth. I loved the complex mix of emotions in this book. I loved the flashes of humor and the poignant moments. I thought Rob was a fascinating character in the other Lost Lords books, and I was not disappointed in his development as the hero here. And I adored Sarah. I said in a recent discussion of heroines that my favorite heroines are those who are strong enough to do what they can do and smart enough to ask for help when they need it, and Sarah is just such a heroine.
Christmas in Snowflake Canyon, RaeAnne Thayne (October 29)
This may be the best contemporary heroine redemption story since Susan Elizabeth Phillips gave the world Sugar Beth. Thayne shows her readers the family forces that have molded Genevieve into the pampered, petulant beauty she appears to be; she shows us that there is something worthwhile in Genevieve. She may be ill-equipped for transformation, but from the moment she has an epiphany that allows her to see herself as “small, selfish, and stupid,” she begins a journey that will bring her, the Hope’s Crossing community, and readers to the understanding that she can be great-hearted, giving, and smart in all the ways that matter most.
No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, Sarah MacLean (November 26)
If someone told me that I’d love a story in which the hero was a suspected murderer and the heroine the woman who framed him, I’d laugh in her/his face. Yet such is the wonder of MacLean’s craft in this book that I not only loved the story but rank No Good Duke Goes Unpunished among the very best romance fiction, not just of this year but of all-time. This is historical romance with characters who captivate with every word they utter and every move they make, a story rich in countless shades of emotions, and prose that makes the reader want to linger over its glorious texture if only she were not compelled to keep turning pages.
No Place for a Dame, Connie Brockway (December 1)
I love the relationship between Giles and Avery. They challenge each other in a way that makes for wonderful dialogue, and it is clear to the reader that this couple enjoys the time they spend together. They make each other laugh, they share interests, and they grow in their understanding of one another. The reader can easily see them growing old together, still finding one another interesting and exciting after decades together. From the opening page to the practically perfect epilogue, I knew I was reading vintage Brockway—smart, emotionally satisfying, and addictive.
How many of these have you read? Are any of them on your best of list?
Next Saturday: The Rest of the Best—Non-Romance Favorites