Because I read widely and broadly, I hesitate to say I am a picky reader, but my romance reading has declined over the past two years as my tastes have become rather fickle–particularly when it comes to my first love, historical romance. I’m a somewhat heavy Goodreads user, so my list is culled from the truly B+/A+ reads (the star system is rather unreliable since there are no half or quarter stars).
The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley – very skeptical about this book since I’ve read so many bios on Edward VII, but Ridley surprised me. Thoroughly engrossing and well-written, and gave a new viewpoint of his scandals, his influence on politics, and his relationship with the women in his life, from his mother, his wife, and his mistresses.
1939: The Last Season of Peace by Angela Lambert – Lambert does take a skewer to the aristocracy on the eve of WWII, but manages to present a balanced and fascinating portrait of life for debutantes in interwar England. This is actually good reading for those who want to understand the pre-WWII social season in general.
The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields – I’m a huge fan of Edith Wharton, and that overruled my hesitance to read fictionalized accounts of real people. Fields presents a view of Wharton’s passionate and painful love affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton, which came late in her life and reset the course of her life. In Fields’ elegant and lush prose, Wharton’s entrance into an affair and the subsequent emotional fallout feels a bit voyeuristic, but I could not stop reading. Enhancing the narrative is the POV of Wharton’s ex-governess-cum-personal secretary, Anna Bahlmann, who is also liberated and unsettled by this affair.
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell – My jaw-dropped response to this book was “The Great Gatsby meets Gone Girl, if Gatsby and Nick were women.” I’ll leave it there. Can’t wait for the film version with Keira Knightley!
A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams – A super-duper romantic novel set in 1930s upper class America, that, through the eyes of Lily Dane, deals with anti-antisemitism, adultery, secrets, and dizzy family bonds. Williams has the most vivid and delicious prose that leaps from the page, and Nick Greenwald…I actually swooned when reading about him, LOL.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler – I was rather blown away by this book. I’m minutely familiar with Zelda Fitzgerald, so I cannot vouch for a completely accurate portrait of the woman, but Fowler makes her narrative very convincing. Fowler also manages to catch the honeyed cadence of Zelda’s southern-tinged accent, as well as the frenetic and manic years of her marriage to Scott and her time in various sanitariums. Some have complained that this is one of the growing number of books that inflates Zelda’s writing skills and her influence on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own writing, but why can’t it be true?
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I read this my freshman year of high school, and though I enjoyed it then, I wondered if it would hold up after all these years. Surprisingly, I loved this, and understood more of the allusions and themes Fitzgerald wove into the plot. One of those books you ought to read at least twice: once as a teenager and once as an adult.
Parade’s End – I’m cheating in that I have about 30% left to read, but so far, 70% of this has been a masterpiece. It’s not very easy to read, and I think it best to watch the mini-series starring Benedict Cumberbatch in order to affix imagery in your mind. But this is rightfully declared one of the best novels of the 20th century.
Your Wicked Heart by Meredith Duran – This is the first Duran title that’s worked for me. This novella, shorn of an overblown plot, allowed her exquisite prose and characterization to really shine. The end was a tad contrived to extend the conflict between Amanda and Lord Ripton, but 95% of the book was so good I let that pass.
Ravishing the Heiress by Sherry Thomas – My favorite of the Fitzhugh trilogy, which I read earlier this year. The flashbacks, the conflict, the characterization, and the prose were so beautifully done. Right up there with my other favorite Thomas, Not Quite a Husband.
The Lost by Vicki Pettersson – The Celestial Blues series re-energized my malaise over urban fantasy. This is book two (book 1 is The Taken), and continues the doomed romance of Kit and Griff. 🙁 But if you like your UF with a mix of theology, romance, grit, and vintage, this series is for you.
I did not, however, track my mid-year glomming of Jennifer Blake and Roberta Gellis. Blake was one of my earliest historical romance reads, and Gellis came into my life when I sought meatier medievals, so I was thrilled to see Blake reissuing her backlist on the Kindle and to find a huge sale of Gellis’s titles–via Ellora’s Cave and Sourcebooks–on Kobo. Give or take a few Blake titles, they held up very well! Blake in particular has a massive backlist, so I am going to highlight the books I loved the best.
– her books are largely set in Antebellum Louisiana, with jaunts to Mississippi, Spain, and France of the same period. The prose is dense and many times philosophical, as the hero and heroine use words and their various meanings to both attract and repel one another, and the focus is mostly on the heroine’s POV. Slavery is very present in a lot of her novels, but Blake treats it with a matter-of-factness that neither glorifies or condemns this “peculiar institution.” Many of the titles also fall firmly in “captivity narrative” that Robin/Janet of Dear Author parsed through earlier this year, so if you do have a knee-jerk reaction against blurred lines of consent in your romance novels, these might not be for you.
Midnight Waltz – I hesitate to say too much about this because the romance involves a twist (though you might find it fairly obvious upon reading the text). I loved Amalie for her strength in her heartbreaking marriage, and especially loved that Blake did not use sex as something that turns the heroine TSTL. The twisted bonds of family–even if it inadvertently hurts another family member–is a strong theme.
Spanish Serenade – The most philosophical and opaque of Blake’s novels, as Pilar and Refugio constantly hide their feelings from one another with words. The “road romance” aspect of the plot underpins their impossible relationship, which takes the h/h–and their band of followers–from 18th century Spain to the West Indies and finally to Texas.
Surrender in Moonlight – A very exhilarating romance set during the Civil War, involving a blockade runner cheated out of his inheritance (think Rhett Butler) and an heiress on the run. This is the most pro-South/Confederacy of any of Blake’s novels set in this time period, and I admit to twinges of unease over liking the characters. However, the twists and turns of the plot and the vivid historical backdrop make up for this. There was a bit of repetitiveness between Lorna and Ramon’s back and forth, but it fit them.
Prisoner of Desire – The heroine kidnaps the hero and chains him in a grainery. 😉 The most romantic of my favorite Blake titles, since I have a weakness for a hero who suffers from unrequited love. Lots of verbal sparring between the h/h, who share a bleak past involving the death of her fiance.
Fierce Eden – Blake’s meticulous research shows best in this book. It is based around the defeat and disappearance of the Natchez people in the 1720s, and the hero is the ubiquitous “half-breed” usually found in historical romances focused on Native Americans. Thankfully, his heritage is not a source of internal conflict (“I’m not good enough!!”), but is actually the source of the external conflict. Reynaud is also one of the sweetest and strongest heroes I’ve ever read in romance–I like to re-read this just for him (and I’m a heroine-centric reader!).
Golden Fancy – An anomaly in that it’s set in 1890s Cripple Creek, Colorado, but Serena and Ward–our heroine and hero–have roots in New Orleans. I’ll state outright that the hero rapes the heroine near the beginning of the book–but it sets the stage for a plot packed with a conversation about consent, gender roles, and sexuality. The narrative does go a bit melodramatic, with external contrivances keeping the h/h from being together, but hey, it was the 80s, where the longer the book went on, the better (it seems).
– Gellis writes Historical romance–no wallpaper or 20th century people set in the past here! She’s brutally honest about life in the medieval and Regency periods, which might make some readers uncomfortable. These are also long, meaty reads, with plots that are tightly entwined with their historical backdrop (lots of real life people in the books too!).
Fires of Winter – the sequel to A Tapestry of Dreams, but can be read alone. The most unique aspect is its dual first person POV–each chapter is told from the h/h’s perspective, with some overlap in the time frame. Set during King Stephen’s war with Empress Matilda, the plot springs from the arranged marriage trope–Bruno is a bastard knight who serves as the king’s right-hand man, and Melusine is an heiress who went mad when her entire family died in close succession.
Fire Song – Book three in the Royal Dynasty series. I read this without knowing it was part of a series, so I can safely attest that it can be read by itself. Marriage of convenience story between an eye-rollingly misogynist hero suffering from guilt over his wife’s death and a strong, intelligent heroine who, despite her inferiority complex over her illegitimacy, constantly challenges his misogyny. Aubrey is such an ass, but his growth into a good husband and good man via the awesome Fenice is fun to read.
The Heiress series–The English Heiress, The Cornish Heiress, The Kent Heiress, Fortune’s Bride, A Woman’s Estate–are real Regencies. Following the St. Eyre family and friends, the saga (because it really is a saga) deals with the French Revolution, smuggling along the English coast, Napoleon’s war in Russia, the Spanish campaign, and the War of 1812, respectively. Gellis has a tendency towards Big Misunderstandings, but the characters are so appealing in their cluelessness over one another’s feelings, and the history is amazing! My favorite is Fortune’s Bride, set in Spain/Portugal and featuring a marriage of convenience between plain heiress Merry Talbot and the incredibly handsome Robert Moreton, who rescues her from a tiny village, marries hero, and has her follow the drum.