Candy’s Favorite Romances: A Work in Progress

While I was on the Book Tour of Much Bosom Heaving, one of the top questions I got wasn’t, to my surprise, “What is a cuntweasel? Is it a weasel made of cunt, or a weasel whose native habitat is a cunt, or a verb for a maneuver from a cunt that is exceptionally limber? Enlighten us, O Muse!” No, one of the questions people asked me most consistently was “Do you have a list of your favorite romance novels on Smart Bitches?” And the answer, surprisingly, was “no.” I mean, most of the regulars who’ve been around a while know how much I love Laura Kinsale, but I don’t have an actual list of the books I love enough to put on my keeper shelves. And I figured: I’m procrastinating on some other work, so I might as well put together the list of my favorite romances.

But since I’m me, I’m actually putting together THREE different lists. They are:

Books that are non-schlocky in premise and excellent in execution

Books that are schlocky in premise and excellent in execution

Books that are both schlocky in premise and execution, and I LOVE THEM ANYWAY.

I’m not going to order these lists by preference or anything like that, but the titles are going to listed as they occur to me, so the ones near the top of the list are going to be the ones I re-read and think about the most. Some of the titles receive the briefest of mini-blurbs, as the spirit moves me. And the usual caveats to these sorts of lists apply, of course: yes, these are completely subjective; yes, I know Judith Ivory is excellent, but she doesn’t quite make the cut for my favorite; and no, I’m not going to explain what “schlocky” is and why, say, Uncertain Magic is non-schlocky but Special Gifts is, even though they both involve psychics. “Schlocky” is like porn: I know it when I see it (or, more accurately speaking, I cringe hard when describing it), and if your schlock threshold is vastly different from mine, then vive la différence, and feel free to tell me why some of my schlock vs. non-schlock categorizations are wrong.

Non-Schlocky Premise, Excellent in Execution

  1. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
  2. For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale
  3. Uncertain Magic by Laura Kinsale
  4. Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale
  5. The Hidden Heart by Laura Kinsale
  6. My Sweet Folly by Laura Kinsale: OK, this one gets kinda schlocky partway through, but I still love it, and the overall premise isn’t schlocky, and I don’t know where the hell to put this one, and am easily swayed should you choose to argue for this either way
  7. To Love and To Cherish by Patricia Gaffney
  8. To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney
  9. Lucien’s Fall by Barbara Samuel
  10. Bed of Spices by Barbara Samuel
  11. Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie
  12. Anyone But You by Jennifer Crusie (it’s no coincidence that my two favorite Crusies feature sassy women who are child-free by choice)
  13. Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie
  14. Crazy For You by Jennifer Crusie
  15. Sweet Everlasting by Patricia Gaffney
  16. Knaves’ Wager by Loretta Chase
  17. The Lion’s Daughter by Loretta Chase
  18. Captives of the Night by Loretta Chase
  19. My Lady Notorious by Jo Beverley: this one could’ve been schlocky, but the fact that Cyn immediately figures out Chastity’s disguise pushes this into non-schlocky territory.
  20. Upon a Wicked Time by Karen Ranney
  21. My Beloved by Karen Ranney: There’s a Big Secret keeping the hero and heroine apart, and hot damn it’s a doozy.

Schlocky in Premise, Excellent in Execution

  1. The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale: If I’ve said this once, I’ve said this a hundred times: do not let the white-ninja-lurves-lonely-seamstress premise keep you away, because this is some seriously, seriously good shit.
  2. Midsummer Moon by Laura Kinsale
  3. Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale: right about the time the adorable penguin showed up, I knew the plot was getting kinda schlocky, but Kinsale pulls off the characterization with the deftest of touches
  4. Shadowheart by Laura Kinsale: let the great debate as to why this belongs here but For My Lady’s Heart is in the non-schlocky category begin
  5. Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale: the whole outlaw-with-inner-ear-damage-and-a-pet-wolf thing came close to pushing the premise into schlock territory all on its own, but lordy, it is so well-written.
  6. The Windflower by Laura London/Sharon and Tom Curtis: Oh, come on. Even I, who love it so, cringe a little when I have to describe it to somebody. “So, there’s this incredibly sheltered American ingénue who’s wrongly kidnapped by an English pirate, and her brother’s an American spy, so she can’t tell him the truth, and then there are these two amazing secondary characters named Cat and Raven who befriend her and protect her, and then she befriends the pet pig aboard the ship, and the hero doesn’t rape her, but comes close a few times…guys? Guys? It’s awesome. I swear.”
  7. Wild at Heart by Patricia Gaffney: Boy raised by wolves who falls in love and has a happy ending? Be still, my beating heart.
  8. Shadow Dance by Anne Stuart: It’s probably my favorite cross-dressing romance of all time (though The Lion’s Daughter is a close second)
  9. Special Gifts by Anne Stuart: my first Anne Stuart novel, and (as many of you know already), my introduction to the existence of oral sex. To date, I haven’t read a better tortured psychic/bullying cop novel better than this one.
  10. Uncommon Vows by Mary Jo Putney: that thing with the window and the retrograde amnesia? So melodramatic. I love it.
  11. Manhunting by Jennifer Crusie: It would’ve been so easy to fuck this one up, given the rather sleazy swingin’ singles vibe you get when you hear about the premise of the story (heroine goes on a singles retreat to find a date), but the hero and heroine are outstanding (she’s set up to be an ice-princess, but really is not, and he’s a lovable slacker, which is rare romance type)
  12. Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas: I’m no doubt going to catch a lot of crap for this for putting it in the “schlock” category, but come on: gentle bookish miss wins the heart of hardened cockney owner of a gambling hell? Schlocky premise. Awesome execution.
  13. Midnight Angel by Lisa Kleypas: Russian princess who’s disguised as a governess for the lonely, feisty child of a man WITH A HOOK FOR A HAND? So schlocky! So awesome!
  14. Everything ever by Shana Abe: I love her books and think she writes gorgeous sentences (when they’re not too busy being florid), but her premises, and some of her character names…. Oy.

Schlocky in Premise, Schlocky in Execution, and I LOVE THEM ANYWAY

  1. Mine to Take by Dara Joy: Man, remember back when Dara Joy’s stories were awesome and not, like, completely bugfuck self-published novels? I miss those books. Her former editor at Dorchester deserves some kind of sainthood, if the manuscripts she turned in were anything close to the self-published stuff she’s putting out nowadays.
  2. Tonight or Never by Dara Joy (you will notice a LOT of Dara Joy in this list)
  3. Rejar by Dara Joy (see? I do not lie.)
  4. Knight of a Trillion Stars by Dara Joy (OK, this is the last Dara Joy book on the list—you can breathe a sigh of relief now)
  5. Only With Your Love by Lisa Kleypas: Oh man. There’s so much that I should hate about this book, from the forced seduction to the virgin widow premise to the completely improbable ending, but I care not, for lo, the chemistry between Celia and Justin cannot be denied, and the whole “I fell in love with both twins” thing is both hilarious and titillating
  6. Vixen by Jane Feather: It’s a guardian-ward romance between a girl who’s the Regency equivalent of the manic pixie dreamgirl and her much older, tortured, kinda skeezy alcoholic guardian. I love this book like damn and like burning not in spite of its wrongness, but because it is so wonderfully, deliciously wrong.
  7. Morning Song by Karen Robards: What can be schlockier than a stepfather/stepdaughter romance? OK, fine, lots of things, up to and including, say, Georgina Gentry’s entire backlist. But still. Dudes. SO. DELICIOUSLY. WRONG.
  8. Something Wonderful by Judith McNaught: This was the first romance novel I read that I unreservedly loved. But talk about your manic pixie dreamgirls, and pointlessly tortured heroes.
  9. Almost Heaven by Judith McNaught: Another manic pixie dreamgirl, and another hero who’s more tortured than he needs to be. McNaught has a pattern, but these books are cracktastic.
  10. Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught: This time, the dreamgirl isn’t quite as manic or pixie-ish, and the hero isn’t as brooding. Still very solidly in the McNaught pattern, though, and every bit as delicious.

Right. I’m done with this list for now. I’ll be updating it as I discover new favorites and remember old favorites that need to be on this list but were omitted because my brain has more gaping holes than Paris Hilton (ha-HA, and zing, because Paris Hilton jokes are so totally funny OMG). In the meanwhile: talk amongst yourselves. Dissect and analyze this list! Speculate on my psyche based on my reading tastes! Agree vigorously! Disagree vociferously! Abuse exclamation points with abandon!

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Jill Myles says:

    There is a ‘man raised by wolves’ romance out there? For serious? And it’s sexy? I gotta write that shit down, because I love me wildboy romance, yo.

    I absolutely love Lisa Kleypas’s stuff. It’s like being wrapped in a fuzzy blanket of romance goodness. Judith Mcnaught is my crack, and Julie Garwood would be on my ‘Schlocky and Schlocky but LOVE’ list. Like, all of her books. I am all over anything that has a precious ingenue and the Alpha Hero who teaches her the wonders of sexxoring.

    I’ve also noticed…no paranormals (unless you count Dara Joy, but she’s really a category all her own). Why must you hate, Candy Tan? Why? ;)

    Jill

  2. 2
    katiebabs says:

    Am I the only one who find The Windflower to be a “meh” read? Burn me at the stake cause I am not on The Windflower lover.

    You need to read Lightning That Lingers by The Curtis who wrote The Windflower. IMO, best category romance ever written.

  3. 3

    Oh, Judith McNaught. Until You was the first romance novel I ever read, and I went on to read all three you listed. So schlocky. I don’t know why I loved them so much, when there was so much wrong with them, and yet…

  4. 4
    Amelia says:

    Okay, I give. I want to know what a cuntweasel is!

  5. 5
    Candy says:

    @Katiebabs: I totally need to include Lightning that Lingers! Also a bunch of Loretta Chase and Laura London Regencies.

    @Jill Myles: Several of Shana Abe’s novels are paranormal :P . And I hate because I am a whore. Who hates. A lot.

    But yeah, this list leans hard towards the historical; need to go home and re-peruse keeper shelves. I think I’m somewhat pickier when it comes to paranormal world-building, too, vs. world-building for historicals. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I was reading science fiction, horror and fantasy long before I learned to like romance, and I’m looking for similar style/detail in my paranormals?

    @Amelia: The cuntweasel is akin to a sandy vagina, except more weaselly, if you know what I mean.

  6. 6
    Phyllis says:

    There is a ‘man raised by wolves’ romance out there? For serious? And it’s sexy? I gotta write that shit down, because I love me wildboy romance, yo.

    And an aside – there will be a discussion of it on Jennifer Crusie’s Cherry Forums starting on August 15th.

    And thank you, Candy, for the list. I am in a bit of a slump wherein I read and read and yet nothing seems all that good to me. I’ve read most of Kinsale and Chase, but am now going to re-read.

  7. 7
    AQ says:

    Do you realize that less 10% of your favorites are less than 10 years old, none are less than 5 years old and most fall into the fifteen plus year category?

    Really, I’m not complaining. I just find it curious because I’d probably do something similiar if I created a list and I’d have to ask myself whether or not it’s because the book isn’t old enough to become a classic in my mind or because I simply don’t have the time to read as much as I used to and hence my favorites are from a time when I was more of a reading whore.

    Or if I was of a certain age then and the books had more of an emotional impact on me. Or was the writing really better back in the ‘olden’ days. Or if I read of my favorites for the very first time today at my current age and life experience level would I even finish the book? Or… (stop me)

    PS. Sorry for being anal. Once I looked at the list I realized that most of the stories were older and then I simply had to know so I made a chart with original copyright dates. Yes, I am a very sad person.

    BTW: Great lists.

  8. 8
    Katy says:

    Great lists! Some of my own favourites are well dispersed among the three categories. When people ask me to recommend romances to them, I always ask them if they want great books, or great cheese, because there IS a huge difference and Iove both so very much!

    AQ- interesting point about the older pub dates of the books! I have to say, many of my favourites are from the 80s to mid-90s, and I definitely wonder if it’s because I started reading romance 15 years ago and so that became my golden age of romance novels. Admittedly, some of the ones I adored without reservation then have fallen to the wayside for me now (like RIDE OUT THE STORM, Ardeen Malcolm), but most of my favourites from then remain… Hmmm. Curious.

  9. 9
    JewelTones says:

    Omgosh!  Special Gifts by Anne Stuart!  I have that book somewhere in the back of my closet.  I haven’t read it in years.  Definitely have to dig that out now to reread it.  :)

    JT

  10. 10
    liz m says:

    @ Candy & @ Jill Myles – for me, an avid romance and an avid sci fi fan, paranormal is like brownies made with baby food puree to cut the fat. The resulting product isn’t healthy and it’s no longer delicious. No matter how much everyone around me raves that it’‘s fabulous, I still bite into it and go “this doesn’t satisfy me in any respect”

    That said, I’m surprised Ann Maxwell / Elizabeth Lowell hasn’t dipped into the paranormal (or if she did I missed it) since her ‘dancers’ books were sort of the forerunners of paranormal romance. But with cheesy 70’s covers.

  11. 11
    Becky says:

    You know, most of the romances on my keeper shelves are 10+ years old, too.  In my case I think it’s because back in the day I read romance almost exclusively.  And I inhaled them.  At one point I worked as a receptionist and read almost a book a day at my desk.  And since I couldn’t afford to buy new books at that rate, the library and UBS were my two best friends.  Large quantities, older books.  I discovered some fantastic stuff, and the crap was forgotten.

    Now I read over multiple genres, and thanks to the Bitches and several other reading communities I still discover great books and authors pretty regularly.  But there’s just something special about stumbling onto a new, fabulous author on your own.  That’s a lot easier to do when you’re new to a genre and reading 20-30 books a month.

  12. 12
    Candy says:

    AQ: I was just talking about that issue on Twitter with @redrobinreader, @mcvane and a few other people. Some of it’s due to decreased free time for reading, so I’m reading a much smaller sample than I used to, which means a smaller number of good books make it across my radar. I’m also a more critical reader these days, but all of the books I’ve listed are books that have withstood many re-reads, including recent re-reads; in re-reading, I’ve shifted many from the “non-schlocky” category into the “schlocky” category. Some of it’s probably due to strength of association, too, but certain books I’ve dropped out of my favorites list entirely on re-reading, and I’m not sure how or why some books stand up better than others. I think, ultimately, it’s a question of resonance. (Happens with kids’ books, too: Redwall didn’t survive especially well on re-reading, but the Darkangel trilogy, The Phantom Tollbooth, the Chronicles of Narnia, etc. did.)

    I think a few different things are happening, besides my decreased leisure reading time:

    1. Wordcounts are steadily going down. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but this also limits the complexity of conflict that can happen. Authors I’ve been reading lately seem to consistently set up a complex conflict, and then back off on giving the necessary detail for the conflict to be real, or for it to be resolved satisfactorily.

    2. Somewhat less risk-taking, especially among the big traditional publishers.

    3. The compression of certain sub-genres, e.g., historicals are now mostly the Regency period. (Is this happening to paranormals yet? It’s about due to. I seem to run across a disproportionate number of ass-kicking yet funny narrator heroines who are either slayers or accidental converts, but my sample is not even close to being representative.)

  13. 13
    liz m says:

    Oh, and sorry for the double post but also @ Jill Myles – you HAVE to track down the Gaffney wolves book. She wrote it as an answer to Hoffman’s Second Nature and for years and years I used it as my romance critic converter. I even had my english professor aunt teach it side by side with the Hoffman book one year. The Gaffney is much better. (My opinion to my aunt was that Hoffman had been coasting for years by writing an inferior romance and then removing the HEA)

  14. 14
    Candy says:

    By the way, AQ: care to e-mail me that chart? I’d love to keep tracking my keepers via copyright date, to see if there’s a style from a particular era that I tend to enjoy more, and how that correlates with, say, what other books I’m reading at the time, how much leisure reading I’m doing in general, etc.

  15. 15
    jessica says:

    I absolutely love Jo Beverley. I think she ties together stories well without making me start rolling my eyes (Stephanie Laurens has lost me as a reader). 

    I get lost in books when I can’t figure out why the characters would possibly get together.  I just finished Julia Quinn’s most recent book and I thought it was excellent.  It was one of the first books in a long time that actually showed that the hero and heroine actually LIKED each other.

  16. 16
    liz m says:

    @Jessica – I can’t say enough good things about Eloisa James new one A Duke Of Her Own – if you like JB & JQ check it out – they definitely like each other – it’s a respectful triangle.

  17. 17
    Deb Kinnard says:

    What? Nobody shelves Jude Deveraux’s A KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR in the schlocky/well executed pile? Incredibibble!

  18. 18

    Ah, you included Shadow Dance, one of my favorite (though, as noted often-overlooked) cross-dressing novels. I am a sucker for those. Another is Michelle Martin’s The Adventurers, because if there’s anything more lovely than cross-dressing, it’s Regency-era cross-dressing. It reminds of Heyer’s The Masqueraders, but is a different book entirely.

  19. 19
    AQ says:

    @Candy: E-mailed.

  20. 20
    MaryKate says:

    Am I the only one who find The Windflower to be a “meh” read? Burn me at the stake cause I am not on The Windflower lover.

    *shakes head sadly*

    Oh Kate. I love you so. But girl, how can you not love the flowery, purple, rapturous prose of The Windflower? I love, love, love that book.

    And Candy, I’ll take your Cat and Raven and raise you Rand Morgan. He’s my favorite secondary from The Windflower. Scoudrelly, sexually ambiguous, unscrupulous pirate ship captain? Yes please!

  21. 21
    jessica says:

    I LOVE Eloisa James and thought the new one was terrific—no real villains. 

    And I honestly think A Knight in Shining Armor might be my favorite romance novel of ALL TIME!

  22. 22
    Calila says:

    Wow, I am such a bad romance fan, I’ve read exactly one of the books on your list…I think.

    In my defense I only started reading romances a few years ago.

  23. 23
    Mary G says:

    You know this is the first time I’ve seen one of you guys list a Judith McNaught book.  Her heroines are too… saintly… for my tastes (if I knew anyone like that in RL, I’d be forced to do away with them).  BUT – I LOVE Judith McNaught.  Kingdom of Dreams is my all-time favorite.

    I cannot tell you why – but her books suck me in more than practically anyone else’s.  They’re keepers and I will keep re-reading them until the pages fall apart.

    So – now that I know you love stuff that you probably *shouldn’t* – I’ll have to check out the rest of your list – vacation coming up… bookaholic overdose incoming!

  24. 24
    Zoe Archer says:

    Candy, have you read Judith Ivory?  I’ve loved almost all of her books, and find the characterization and writing to be extraordinarily deft and complex.  One of my favorites that actually survived The Great Keeper Shelf Cleaning of ‘07 is Bliss, written as Judy Cuevas.  Openly ambitious, acquisitive American woman goes to turn of the century France as an assistant to a art dealer and meets a Frenchman who was once a famous sculptor but self destructed and is being forced by his family to detox from his ether-drinking habit.  It is fucking awesome.  Highly worth tracking down.

  25. 25
    Becky says:

    Calila, don’t feel bad.  I’ve been reading romance for almost 20 years now, and the only books on the list that I’m sure I’ve read are the Crusie, the Joy, and one Abe.

    I love Crusie, forever and ever, amen.  I used to love Joy, but her books haven’t held up so well on the re-reads.  And the Abe was enjoyable but not a keeper for me.

    Some of my most satisfying romance reading experiences lately have been outside the genre.  Clare and Russ from Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mystery series and Julia and Brisbane from Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series are two of my very favorite romantic couples.  Both relationships develop over the course of multiple books, and both are mystery series.

  26. 26
    Candy says:

    Zoe: I have Bliss in my TBR, and I have several Ivory titles on my keeper shelves, but they’re auxiliary keepers, if that makes any sense—they’re really good, and in many ways much better-written and better-constructed than, say, Dara Joy or Karen Robards, but they don’t grab me in quite the same way. So I keep them around because I like them and because they’re really well-written, but I don’t lurve them, know what I mean?

    And to those fans of Knight in Shining Armor: sorry, dudes. That book has always left me cold. It’s one of my sister’s favorites, too. The only Jude Deveraux book I’ve ever liked was Sweet Liar, and I haven’t re-read that in forever, so I don’t even know if it’s held up over the years.

    @AQ: Thank you! You are a rockstar. You and your anal-retentiveness have my love and respect.

  27. 27
    Phyllis says:

    Concerning the age of the books: I just started reading romance 4 or 5 years ago, and yet the Crusie and Chase (and a couple of the Kinsale and Gaffney, and…) books, even the backlist that was published long before I started reading romance are among my favorites. Maybe it’s because I’m as old as most people who have been reading romance for 20 years?

  28. 28
    Zoe Archer says:

    Candy, I just read Flowers From the Storm (with Fabio!) and red myself into a piercing eye-strain headache because I Would Not.  Put.  The Book.  Down.  Even when I wanted to smack Maddy and Christian in their respective gobs.  It’s staying.  (I actually have Quaker in a non-romance book I’m writing, so I was curious to see how it played out in FFtS.

    I found the technical writing of The Shadow and the Star to be excellent, but the characters didn’t move me as much.  Ordered the wolfy Gaffney, so if I hate it, it’s your ass, bitch. 

    Have you tried Julie Anne Long?  She is, I think, one of the strongest voices in historical romance writing now.  Not all of her titles are as outstanding as others, but her ongoing Pennyroyal Green series has been kicking ass and taking names.  Smart, multilayered, capable of moments of Holy Shit, This Cunt Can Write moments.

  29. 29
    Kate says:

    Candy, you pretty much summed up what I feel about Judith Ivory but could never quite articulate. I have three or four of her books in my keeper collection, but they aren’t actually favourites- definitely “auxiliary keepers”! It’s like, I know she’s technically awesome and her writing is really good, but they never really satisfy me somehow even though I find them beautifully realistic and well-developed.

  30. 30
    JoAnn Ross says:

    I would read Pat Gaffney’s grocery list, so I’m nowhere near impartial, but I LOVED her man raised by wolves book.  And second Liz that it was much better than Hoffman’s.  (Interesting idea about Hoffman writing romance, then taking away the HEA.)

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