I originally wrote this blog post back in 2010 on my ancient blogspot blog; and here it is revised, expanded and updated. It used to be that I could only think of eight romances that would get on my top ten list; that was why it was only originally eight. But since 2010, I’ve read a lot more romances, and now it can easily be expanded to ten. Enjoy!
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A heart-warming, lighthearted romp about a clever vicar named Walter and the sexy ex-courtesan Artemisia who catches his (decidedly unclerical) eye. This is an infectiously fun, feel-good novella that uses religion in a way that doesn’t feel insulting or depressingly heavy-handed, and the ending, while not exactly grim and realistic, never fails to make me smile. If you’re feeling down, you can’t go wrong with reading HutC: Jackie Barbosa is a talented wordsmith with a knack for creating lively, memorable and extremely sensual characters.
#9 Enchant the Heavens— Kathleen Morgan
Ignore the cover, where the hero’s hands look like he’s about to crush the heroine’s skull. This is a fine book, with a sexy, smart hero and a strong, capable heroine who actually fights her own battles. It’s also well-researched: the Celts act like Celts, and the Romans act like Romans (who even have proper nomenclature). The story involves a British chieftain’s daughter and the Roman governor’s nephew during Boudica’s revolt, but unlike most romances set during this period, the Celts aren’t romanticized into nature-loving New Agers, and the Romans aren’t evil. And neither the heroine or hero give up their cultures or identities in the end; in fact they work on bridging their communities in the aftermath of war. It’s mature and refreshing. Also, kudos to Ms. Morgan for featuring Nero in an awesome, non campy and non Christian-burning cameo!
#8 Charity Girl— Georgette Heyer
Though I’m generally tired of the Regency setting, it’s hard to go wrong with Georgette Heyer. I always particularly liked this one. The hero is the blond, witty and effortlessly fashionable Viscont Desford, who takes the bedraggled poor relation Cherry Steane under his wing. Cherry isn’t the heroine though; the viscount’s BFF Henrietta Silverdale turns out to be the heroine, and their slow discovery of their love is actually pretty sweet.
Also, Cherry’s dad shows up in the end, and he is such an OTT bloviator he would give P.T. Barnum a run for his money. A charming, and sometimes even hilarious story. (This cover pictured here is the exact same edition I own too.)
#7 Sympathy for the Devil— Christine Pope
One of the best paranormal romances I’ve read. It’s a clever, fast-paced romance starring… the Devil. Yes, that devil! But there’s no tail or horns, here Lucifer is a dapper and suave fallen angel who makes a deal with God, who offers him a chance at redemption if he can experience human love. Easy enough, according to the Devil, who thinks that making the woman God has chosen fall in love with him will be a simple task. Unfortunately, Lucifer didn’t count on interfering demons, blundering boyfriends, and a young woman who has more questions than he’s willing to answer.
This story is refreshing, delightful, and with some really… pardon the pun, but I can’t resist… devilishly sexy scenes. The book was originally published by Pink Petal Books, but it is now published by Dark Valentine Press.
(The above cover is not the actual cover design, but the mock-up done by the author at the time of the original 2010 blog post, since it was unpublished back then. I’ve included it for nostalgia’s sake— plus it still tickles me. I knew the book would eventually find an audience!)
#6 The Elsingham Portrait— Elizabeth Chater
This possibly one of the first paranormal timeslip category romances ever written, since it was published in 1979. It also isn’t the first bodyswap time travel ever written, but it might be one of the earliest. Mousy librarian Kathryn Hendrix has just been dumped by her sports-car loving stud of a boyfriend (who also must listen to disco on his eight track machine), but a chance encounter with a Georgian portrait of a voluptuous redhead, hung in a small gallery that she visits in her despair, sends her back in time to the 1770s, where she finds herself in the body of the redhead, aka Nadine, Lady Elsingham.
Kathryn’s shock at finding herself in a foreign body is really well done, and the 18th century atmosphere is well executed too. Kathryn finds out to her dismay that Nadine is a sluttish, uneducated girl completely under the thumb of her sinister maidservant Donner, and she must win over her handsome but bitter husband, Lord John, whom she finds herself falling head over heels for.
I’ve read my share of body swap time travel stories, and this is definitely one of the best. Kathryn doesn’t forget Nadine, who is in the future (it’s too bad there was never a sequel about her plight), and she must keep herself from falling into the clutches of the evil Donner. A very diverting read; highly recommended!
#5 Greenwood— Sue Wilson
This is a great book, and it used to be available through the (now defunct) NovelBooks Inc., but it has unfortunately vanished into the ether of the internet. It’s a romance about the Sheriff of Nottingham and a poor healer named Thea. It’s emotionally satisfying melodrama, with adventure, excitement, heaping helpings of medieval culture, and a very interesting take on the Robin Hood legend.
But why did it disappear? I hear you asking. The story is too long to recount here, but it is discussed in this post on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Before it was published by NBI, Greenwood was available through an old (also defunct) AOL Hometown page called the St. Rose Press, and many clever members of the Bitchery found links to the chapters through the internet archives. The links to the archived chapters are in the comments. If anyone’s curious about Greenwood, you can find most of it through there.
I can’t find Sue Wilson to tell her how much I love her writing, but if you’re out there, Sue, I think your books are awesome, and I hope you find another publisher.
I wish I had a better scan of the cover to show you guys, since it’s very much in the tradition of Sanjulian’s paintings for early ’80s bodice-rippers, but alas: my copy is packed away right now, and I can’t find it. I had to make do with this image courtesy of Goodreads. But perhaps it’s just as well.
Silly cover asides, this is a wonderful book with a kickass heroine. Also, it has a setting— early 16th century colonial Peru, with lots of adventure and political intrigue— that I have never seen anywhere else, ever. It was published in the early ’80s, so it begins not terribly promisingly, with our aristocratic heroine Catherine, at the prospect of becoming the mistress of a villainous politician, endures a “forced seduction” turned marriage of convenience at the hands of the lower-class conquistador hero, Valdivia.
But hold on, cats and kittens; the book is better than it sounds. Catherine is an AWESOME heroine who really holds her own, and while great sex isn’t a problem, her husband learns to respect her plenty. Oh, and best of all, Catherine eventually gets her own revenge on her archenemy, the politician. I’m not going to give away. But I don’t think I’ve seen another romance novel where the heroine has so much nerve.
Another time travel book! But this one’s a classic. It took me ages to read it, since the plot description of an 1980s woman finding love with an Elizabethan nobleman sounded kind of cheesy, but it’s a wonderfully ambitious and thought-provoking book with more timey-wimey twists than a Doctor Who episode. The heroine, Dougless, starts out as being pretty depressed, timid and filled with self-doubt, but over the course of going back and forth in time she becomes stronger, more confident, and she stops putting up with people’s shit. In a word: awesome. Nicholas, the Elizabethan nobleman, does come across at times as a bit too good to be true; but he is, after all, the knight in shining armor, and in some ways he is doomed until the damsel rescues him. As a hero, he’s really pretty engaging (and their sex scenes are smoking). The depiction of both periods are wonderful in their contrast, and Ms. Devereaux’s research of the Elizabethan period is solid and not romanticized as most time travel romances tend to be.
The ending is controversial, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Dougless is no longer trapped. She comes into her own, and I love her.
#2 City of Forever— Barbara Blackburn
And for something completely different, here’s City of Forever by Barbara Blackburn. I discovered it purely by luck, as I often do, in the stacks of Cliff’s Books, a great bookstore in Pasadena CA (which unfortunately is no longer with us). I had no idea what to expect, but I liked the early ’60s cover art (the woman with the bouffant and the gloves, the man in the skinny tie!), and so I got it.
It’s too bad this book is so hard to find, because it’s great. Sheltered English girl Miranda leaves her home for a job in Rome to forget wealthy playboy Tony, who is clearly miles out of her league. And who should she run into Rome but Tony, who’s there on business! The writing is graceful and assured, the romantic tension builds nicely throughout the story, and there’s a little suspense too, even if it’s not the Gothic thriller the cover would have you believe. It’s more of a character piece, and the atmosphere of early ’60s Rome is nicely evoked. Miranda and Tony are great characters— Miranda is serious, earnest, overly sensitive, but she has a lot of male friends and is comfortable hanging out with men. In some ways Tony reminds me of an updated Viscount Desford from Charity Girl— he’s a humorous, charming blond guy who knows everything about sports cars, and never appears to be serious, although he turns out to be quite serious about Miranda.
And finally, here we are at #1. Louisa Rawlings (aka Sylvia Halliday and Sylvia Baumgarten) was wrote a lot in the ’80s and ’90s, but her last published book was in 1997. Which is too bad, because— as one of my friends put it— her books read like Georgette Heyer’s Georgian novels, “but with more sex.” Promise is quite possibly my favorite read by her. It’s a rollicking adventure story set in 1730s France about a streetwise young urchin named Topaze who’s hired by an embittered, disinherited young gentleman, Lucien, to scam his estranged provincial noble family out of an inheritance which rightfully belongs to him. Lucien’s young lady cousin has been missing for years, and Topaze, who bears an astonishing resemblance to her, is hired to act her part, infiltrate the family, and get Lucien his inheritance back. Of course, the family has deep dark secrets, and Topaze wonders why she is so strangely drawn to them. And what about her growing love for Lucien? And is someone trying to kill her?
There’s so much great stuff going on in this novel, I don’t know where to start. It takes a lot of well known tropes, like the Pygmalion plot, Identical Stranger, and Becoming the Mask, just to name a few, and mashes them all up into something unpredictable and fun. Topaze is tough, strong and smart, Lucien is brooding (but not too brooding), sexy and clever. There’s terrific period detail too, and a host of well-drawn minor characters.
This is a great read, and again (I feel like I’ve said this a lot already), I wish the author was better known.
However, I have great news for you guys. Promise of Summer has been republished by Samhain— with a blurb by yours truly! Go and get it— you won’t be disappointed!
This post was originally the idea of Alea at Pop Culture Junkie. Thanks, Alea!