As 2016 draws to an end, Miss Bates offers new-year wishes to her readers: may 2017 bring good cheer, good friends, hearty constitutions, and every book be a keeper! Every year is marked by a particular reading mood and this year was harried for Miss Bates. A new job and responsibilities made reading and reviewing more infrequent than she would’ve liked. Maybe because of this, however, Miss Bates was reminded, as she winds down her reviewing year with a final “best of” post, what a soul-sustainer a life-long love of reading is. No matter how busy the week, how laden with tasks the week-end, even a half hour in another place or time, with characters working their way to an HEA, buoyed her spirits and gave her renewed strength for entering “once more unto the breach”. Romance itself had a lacklustre year. As you’ll note from her “best of” choices below, there are as many older roms as recently published ones. Romancelandia lost its unified magic and its controversies paled in light of world events. Review blogging felt quaint, which might be in keeping with Miss Bates’s own persona, but the loss of waning, or shut-down blogs saddens her. And yet, the genre’s message remains true and good: love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the promise of plenitude, of body and spirit, is a candle in the darkening room that seems to be our world. Reading, thinking about reading, and engaging in dialogue about what we read with others, which is what MBRR always wants to be about, still feels right to Miss B.
Here follow the best romance journeys Miss Bates read in 2016. She approached this year’s list with the idea that what romance does best is offer its reader emotional engagement: if a romance gripped Miss Bates and she’s still in its emotional thrall, it made the cut.
Tawna Fenske’s Let It Breathe (2016) Clay, a man of hard-earned sobriety and humility, returns to his hometown and reunites with Reese, the woman who’d rescued him time and again until … she didn’t.
Jessica Hart’s Juggling Briefcase and Baby (2010) Hidden-heart-of-gold Lex, staid, strait-laced, and fastidious, is putty in the hands of ex-girlfriend free-spirit Romy and baby daughter, the irrepressible, shortbread-gumming Freya.
Nicole Helm’s Outlaw Cowboy (2016) Delia and Caleb, both determined to save something or someone other than themselves, are this year’s winning couple at resisting the heart’s call.
Lauren Layne’s Cuff Me (2016) Grumpy, introvert-softie Vin flails with emotional helplessness at pixie-partner’s, Jill’s, engagement, this year’s best comeuppance romance.
Marion Lennox’s Saving Maddie’s Baby (2016) Even if the reunited-husband-and-wife trope weren’t perfectly executed in Josh and Maddie’s story, then Lennox’s redemption of the TSTL heroine would be … ahem, cue eight-month pregnant heroine entering a collapsed mine shaft.
Sarah Morgan’s Some Kind Of Wonderful (2015) Morgan rocks the reunited-husband-and-wife trope in Zach and Brittany. Like Fenske’s Clay, Zach wins the wounded-silent-type award. Morgan is a romance writer who gives her heroes as much emotional vindication as her heroines.
Maisey Yates’s Take Me, Cowboy (2016) Miss B’s “best of” choices in contemporary romance couldn’t go a year without Yates. Anna and Chase’s friends-to-lovers dance evokes all their well-kept insecurities. Anna gains in confidence and embraces her sexuality as well as her heart and Chase’s sexually savvy charm flounders.
Katharine Ashe’s The Rogue (2016) Ashe’s cross-class romance about master-swordsman “Saint” and the woman who broke his heart six years ago, Lady Constance Read, shines brighter when it transforms into the story of reunited protagonists bringing justice to the innocent.
Kerrigan Byrne’s The Hunter (2016) An unabashedly melodramatic romance and new author discovery for Miss Bates! She loved the interplay between assassin Christopher as he resurrected emotionally and intrepid London-actress, Millie LeCour, who took him on … internal and external scars, muscles, and monosyllabic avowals.
Blythe Gifford’s Secrets At Court (2014) Miss Bates yearns for medieval-set romance and Gifford’s is exactly, sublimely that. Her protagonists, Anne and Nicholas, serve kings and queens, but their burgeoning relationship leads them to create their own world, beholden to no one, built of love and beauty.
Elizabeth Hoyt’s Duke Of Sin (2016) Miss Bates’s ROMANCE OF THE YEAR! Hoyt writes one of the best not-quite-redeeming-the-hero romances she’s read in the story of dissolute Val Napier and housekeeper Bridget Crumb. Every romance reader looks for a romance writer to echo Heyer’s greatness and Hoyt accomplishes this in Duke Of Sin.
Sabrina Jeffries’s The Study of Seduction (2016) Miss Bates’s favourite histrom trope, the marriage-of-convenience, is used to perfection in Jeffries’s story of laconic, introverted Edwin and effervescent social butterfly, Clarissa. Her protagonists are loving, likeable people whose convenient marriage brings out the best in each other.
Inspirational Historical Romance
Karen Kirst’s Reclaiming His Past (2016) Miss Bates will read any amnesia plot, but Kirst’s romance about memory-deprived Grant and Good Samaritan Jessica, who rescued him as he lay bleeding and wounded, is about allowing love to unearth, heal, and transcend the past.
Sherri Shackelford’s A Family For the Holidays (2016) Shackelford’s pretend-marriage romance is this year’s drollery romance: maybe it’s poking fun at old-fashioned Westerns, or hilarious plot moppets, but Miss Bates chuckled through this one. Yet it doesn’t stint on the romance for protective, loving lawman Jake and intrepid, tender-hearted Lily.
Judith Arnold’s Barefoot In the Grass (1996) Beth, a woman scarred and strong, meets Ryan, a builder of homes who keeps his heart behind a wall of roguish charm. Beth may carry physical and confidence scars, but she’s learning to walk barefoot in the grass and Ryan must change to follow her there.
Anne Gracie’s Gallant Waif (1999) Surly former-soldier Jack and his energetic, bossy housekeeper Kate win the sheer delight award in Miss B’s reading year. Miss B’s favourite scenes are when Kate smashes things and/or Jack splutters. She resurrects him, though, and he adores her.
Betty Neels’s The Fifth Day Of Christmas (1971) What more can Miss Bates say than Neels as the Great Affirmer does it again: Dutch doctor Ivo is loving, kind, and yet cheeky and charming. Nurse Julia Pennyfeather, who accompanies him to Holland to nurse The Other Woman, wears a soft, pink wool dress for Christmas dinner and rules his heart and soul.
HEA Honourable Mentions
Though not romances per se, the following titles were terrific nonetheless and offer wonderful HEAs.
Susanna Kearsley’s Named Of the Dragon (1998) Lyn has to solve a mystery, massage egos, and survive a pulse-pounding chase scene. Lyn and Gareth’s slow road to love is the lovely reward to the gothic world Lyn enters when she spends Christmas in Wales.
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s The Blue Castle (1926) One of Montgomery’s greatest achievements, the put-upon Valancy breaks away from social and familial strictures to live wildly in the woods. There she meets a mysterious woodsman …
Cathy Pegau’s Murder On the Last Frontier (2015) Though a historical murder mystery, Pegau’s novel has an incipient romance between lady-journalist Charlotte and Cordova, Alaska’s deputy marshal James. Charlotte’s beauty, intelligence, thirst for social justice match his twinkling blue eyes, protectiveness, and moral uprightness. A couple worth waiting for …
Donna Thorland’s The Dutch Girl (2016) Anna and Gerrit are caught in the mixed and painful loyalties of the American revolutionary war. But a kitten named Scrappy and the pull of heart and hearth, of sacrifice and care for the other, bring them to an HEA-haven that transcends history.
What were the best HEAs you read this year, dear reader?
(Miss Bates received Fenske’s Let It Breathe from Montlake; Helm’s Outlaw Cowboy from Sourcebooks Casablanca; Layne’s Cuff Me from Forever; Lennox’s Saving Maddie’s Baby, Yates’s Take Me, Cowboy, Gifford’s Secrets At Court, and Kirst’s Reclaiming His Past from Harlequin Books; Morgan’s Some Kind Of Wonderful from HQN; Byrne’s The Hunter from St. Martin’s; Hoyt’s Duke Of Sin from Grand Central; Jeffries’s The Study Of Seduction from Pocket; Kearsley’s Named Of the Dragon from Sourcebooks Landmark; Pegau’s Murder On the Last Frontier from Kensington; Thorland’s The Dutch Girl from NAL Penguin, via Netgalley. She received Ashe’s The Rogue from Avon, via Edelweiss; and, Shackelford’s Harlequin-published A Family For the Holidays from the author. Every other title she bought for herself, or was gifted.)