In my post about tips to help get in the "mood," I wrote about how much I love romance novels and how I look for ones that I consider well written. Now, I'm not an expert on great writing, and I certainly have my own preferences that are different from other people's preferences. But I did get my Bachelor's degree and Master's degree in writing fields and began my career in a writing aspect of my current field. I have read many classics, literature from the canon, classic and contempory poetry, and non-fiction research science novels. I've also read trash, light-hearted beach reads, and books I couldn't even finish because they were so awful in every genre.
I particularly love romance novels. I started reading them in high school and continued in college. By grad school, I was so busy reading research and studying that I had very little time for leisure reading. But when Londo and I moved back to the DC area and my SAD hit me hard, I realized I needed to read lighter novels with happy endings to get through the tough-on-me winters. Thus, I went back to the romance novels. But still, I couldn't just read trashy, poorly written books. There were even some books I'd read in high school that I re-read as an adult and discovered that they really weren't good.
My criteria is:
- Good plots. They don't have to be original ideas, although original plots or twists on old ideas are preferred. They don't have to be completely believable (I can willingly suspend disbelief for books, movies and TV). But they have to be interesting and have something going on in addition to the romance plot.
- Good characters. Nothing will make me drop a book faster than bland, flat characters. Well-rounded characters who are realistic and deeper than just the surface appearance can make an otherwise dull book worth reading, to me.
- Romantic connection on both sides. There is a certain way that good authors can get across the spark of love between characters that makes your heart leap when you read about them looking at each other. I love that.
- Facing adversity together. I know that plenty of people like those books where the two main characters are pitted against each other and their love develops from that. I am not into those. I MUCH prefer the books where the characters work together to overcome adversity. They don't always have to be in perfect accord, but overall aren't constantly fighting with each other.
- Some good sex scenes. They don't have to be super graphic or dirty (although sometimes those are great), but too many euphemisms and you've lost me. I don't want to hear about swords and sheaths or whatever. I'm an adult and I deserve to be talked to/written to as an adult. And I like them steamy, even if it's only really steamy kissing.
- Good writing! This is one of those "you know it when you see/read it." But it includes good word choices, good grammar, writing that flows, good editing so there aren't obvious mistakes in the sequence of events and such, and an interesting writing style/voice.
So now I scour the romance rows in book stores for books by good authors. Some authors I discovered years ago and wait impatiently for their new books to come. Some authors are recommended to me by friends who are romance-novel lovers. Some authors I pick up because the book looks interesting and like it would fit my criteria.
Once I read the books, I rate the authors into the following categories:
- Re-Reader - will re-read the book I've already read and will definitely buy other books by the author
- Keeper - will keep the book for possible re-reading or lending to others and will buy other books if they look interesting
- Worth Buying - may not keep the books but will buy others by the author that look interesting
- Would Read - won't buy other books by the author, but will read if it's given to me for free
- Won't Read - won't bother to read other books by the author
- Won't Finish - won't even finish the book I started because it's crap or pissed me off in some way or another
Well, that was a long introduction to my even longer book recommendations. I'm going to try to categorize the books I recommend in a way that makes sense to me. They will include only Re-Readers, Keepers, Worth Buyings and maybe a couple Would Reads. At the end of my recommendations, I've included another woman's recommendations which are definitely worth checking out.
Jo Beverly - Jo Bev is one of my favorite authors, as I've mentioned before when she commented on one of my posts. She writes good plots, has very interesting characters, great dialogue (which can be very tough to do), keeps things in perspective of the time periods in which she writes, is historically accurate and even gives more details in her Author's Notes at the end of the books, and has some great romance scenes. I especially love her Malloren series (my favorite book of hers is Tempting Fortune, the second in this series, I think because the hero reminds me so much of Londo), but her Company of Rogues series is a close second. cm Rating = Re-Reader.
Sabrina Jeffries - I discovered her by reading The Royal Brotherhood series, and I thought they were fun, good reads. I like her characters, plots and romance scenes. I don't think I've read any of her older books, as the newer ones seem more interesting to (by their back covers, at least). Also, her newer ones tend to at least tangentially have characters from other books, and I love that. cm Rating = Keeper.
Julia Quinn - I recently started reading Julia Quinn, and I've become a fan. Some of the plots are a bit cliche (the Cinderella plot, the Robin Hood character who is really a society man, etc.), but overall I like her character development and her writing. I've really started to get into her Bridgerton series. I think she's definitely worth trying out. cm Rating = Keeper.
Cathy Maxwell - Her books are fun, light reads. Not really original or deep, but a good beach read with good writing. Although, I must admit that I've read only a few of her books, so maybe I just haven't found her best. cm Rating = Worth Buying.
Mary Balogh - I just read my first novel of hers, which is in the Bedwyn series, and I really enjoyed it. She has interesting characters that might be a little unusual for the time period, but she makes it clear that they know they are unusual. A friend gave me this book, and I'm now going to buy the others in the series and hope they are as good! cm tentative Rating = Worth Buying.
Celeste Bradley - I've read a couple of her books in The Royal Four series, and I enjoyed them. I like a good spy-mixed-with-romance novel, and hers have been interesting. I do plan to buy more of her books. cm Rating = Worth Buying.
Johanna Lindsey - She's long been a favorite of many readers. I personally loved her books in high school, but now think they are only okay. I will still buy books in her Malory series, but I have to really be in the mood for a stubborn, alpha male hero to read them. I do like to read alpha male characters (especially in the bedroom), but add the complete stubborn/obstinate trait, and he will get on my nerves. She has at least one book that I would never recommend to others, and even threw away my copy so that no one else would read it, because it was pretty much hero captured pretty girl, she said she hated him, he raped her, she said she hated him again, he raped her again, repeat a few times, she fell in love with him, and then he with her. That to me isn't a love story, it's Stockholm syndrome and not romantic AT ALL. So with her, it all depends on the book, and then on my mood. But others like her more than I do. cm Rating = Worth Reading (but depends on book).
Liz Carlyle - I've only read one of her books, The Devil You Know, and it was a pretty good book. But she just didn't hit me as an author that I would search the shelves for. I've heard other say good things, though, so she obviously goes over well with others. cm Rating = Worth Reading.
I'll also mention Lisa Kleypas, but I'm not sure how to rate her. I liked her at first, when I was in the mood for alpha male characters. Then I read one that included a miscarriage, and I didn't like the way it was dealt with at all. I think I was literally yelling out loud at the characters in the book and the author. But that's a senstive topic for me. And so I stopped buying her books. But again, others might like her and can either get past what I can't or not read that book.
Sherrilyn Kenyon - She was (and maybe still is) my second favorite romance author. When she first came out with Dark-Hunter series, I gobbled up those books and tracked when the next ones would come out. The early books in that series were so great! It was like hot romance with Buffy the Vampire Slayer dialogue. Fun and sexy. But after enjoying the new books in the series less and less, I've finally decided that I probably will stop reading the rest of series. I will still go back and re-read (again) the earlier books. For me, it's really that she seems to feel she has to go bigger, badder and more apocolyptic with every book. I was happy when there were brooding Dark-Hunters going after the evil vampire-characters, and they needed their true love to save their souls--and hot romantic connections. I enjoyed her mythos that she created, but now it's gone from humans turned Dark-Hunters to the gods' gods and even more powerful demons. It's just too much, overdone. But having said all that, I'm still loving her BAD series, which is really contemporary, not paranormal. cm Rating = Re-Reader to Would Read, depending on book.
Christine Feehan - So, I can't just say I like this author, but need another whole explanation. I have been reading her Drake Sisters series, and I've been enjoying them. The plots are really interesting, and I like the characters (even though some border on flat). But I don't think her writing is that fantastic. She repeats a lot of the same thoughts, without any variation in some cases, and the dialogue sometimes seems sophmoric. I do like the story lines of this series, but I don't think I'll buy her other books. cm Rating = Worth Reading.
Sherrilyn Kenyon - See above. I love the BAD series because (like her earlier Dark-Hunter novels) they are fun and sexy. cm Rating (for her contemporary romances) = Worth Buying.
Vicki Lewis Thompson - I picked up a book in her Nerds series at an airport once, and I just thought it was so cute. They are light, beach reads that you can't take too seriously, but they are fun and even interesting. And for those of us who have a thing for the nerdy/geeky types, especially those who have a bit of nerdy/geeky on the inside but hot on the outside (*ahem*Londo*ahem*), it's fun to read these books. I believe that the heroines also range from the geeky-on-the-inside-gorgeous-on-the-outside to the nerd-who-cleans-up-to-be-a-hottie. And let's face it people, brains are sexy! cm Rating = Keeper.
Sandra Brown - She is another author I discovered in high school, but one I still really enjoy. I love her contemporary mystery romances. Actually, I'm not sure she is considered a romance writer any more, but her mysteries sure have some steamy love scenes. The books she puts out now are pretty hot and have good plots. The first book of hers I read was French Silk. I kept the copy from when I read it in high school and re-read as an adult, and it was still really good. I listened to Envy as a book-on-CD recently, and thought it was so well done. I did read her older romance novels in high schoool, and though they might be good, I have not bothered to re-read any (and I didn't save any of those). cm Rating = Keeper.
Nora Roberts - It seems that everyone who reads Nora Roberts loves her. I think I've not yet gotten into her because of two reasons: 1) She writes drama, not light read romances; and 2) I first read some trilogy of novellas (picked up at a flea market and I don't think is even in print anymore) she wrote about some fake country and the princes' and princess's love stories which wasn't that good. The sex scenes were so bad, I honestly couldn't figure out if/when they were having sex! But my understanding is that those books do not represent her, as apparently she is a really good writer. So I am currently reading a book in her Chesapeake series, and even though I'm only a couple chapters in, I am really enjoying it. cm Rating = Undecided, but leaning toward Keeper.
Linda Francis Lee - I picked up Sinfully Sexy at an airport, and it was a cute story. I didn't buy any others by her, but I would if I saw one. It reminded me of chick lit just this side of romance. cm Rating = Worth Buying.
Look, sometimes I'm just in the mood for dirty, trashy smut. My normal criteria pretty much goes out the window, which is why these deserve their own category. I think the only criteria here is that I've read them and they are graphic, dirty and full of sex.
Laurell K. Hamilton - She writes paranormal romance/horror. Lots of people seem to like her Anita Baker vampire series. I read the first one and wasn't impressed. But I like my vampire novels to have brooding characters who go through a redemption story plus a love story (ideally redemption through love). However, I did start reading her Merry Gentry series simply because the reviews on Amazon went about how they were full of raunchy sex and had less and less plot as the books went on. They are, and I keep buying them. Hehe. But you have to be okay with the weird (really weird) and horrific, which I am as long as the horrific isn't really mixed in with the sex. I do not read about violent sex. Not a turn on for me, and it isn't for the heroine of this series either. cm Rating = Worth Buying for me, maybe not for you.
Pat Booth - Here I fess up that I haven't read her since high school, and I'm pretty sure she's out of print and I didn't keep any of my books. But this was some trashy smut! The books were contemporary with a poor-girl-trying-to-make-it-in-big-fake-city feel to them. They had some really hot sex scenes, one on a boat that I still remember as a "wow, some day I want to do THAT!" I wonder if I can find them at the library. cm Rating = Would Read.
Jackie Collins - Haven't read her since high school, either, but if you like smut, she's one of the best. cm Rating = Would Read
I guess that's all I've got. I have a couple of bags of books that people have recently given me and lent me, mostly with authors I haven't read yet so I can't wait to try. I might have to do an update in a year or so when I've read some more authors.
In the mean time, here are recommendations from eccentric libertarian, a regular commenter on Ask Moxie who exchanged emails with me about romance novels that we liked:
"My criteria: intelligent writing, a reasonable level historical accuracy, an effort to create characters who are not just contemporary people with contemporary thoughts who happen to be wearing corsets, etc., no silly, contrived plots, and some hot sex scenes, although not super graphic or on every other page. I'm not including any authors who are no longer in print." "I forgot to mention one other criteria that I look for in what I consider to be the very best historical romance - absorbing emotional relations between characters that are fully realized, with psychological depth."
"Laura Kinsale is the best, IMO. Anything by her is really good, but some are great - my particular favorites are For My Lady's Heart (set in the late 1300s), The Shadow and the Star (Victorian era, includes an adult character who was sexually abused as a child, which some may not want to read about), The Dream Hunter (1840s), Flowers from the Storm (1850s), and The Prince of Midnight (circa 1780s).
Judith Ivory is another author who meets my criteria. Some of hers are out of print, but the ones you can find on bookstore shelves today are all good...although I did not care for Angel in a Red Dress. Untie My Heart, about a semi con artist, is very enjoyable - and some pretty hot sex scenes. Beast is another good one, and has an unusual place & time setting - an ocean liner and then France in the 1910s.
Loretta Chase - also all good. Her linked series of Miss Wonderful, Mr. Impossible, and Lord Perfect is a good introduction to her writing.
Liz Carlyle - while I think this writer has run out of steam, some of her earlier books are very good. A Woman of Virtue, A Woman Scorned, My False Heart, Beauty Like the Night, and The Devil You Know are the real deal, and share some interconnecting characters.
Eloisa James, Julia Quinn, Jo Beverley, and Mary Balogh are all popular and seem to put out a book every year. Their stuff is fine, but not a lot stands out."
And in response to my email that mentioned I like Jo Bev, Julia Quinn and Mary Balogh:
"I like Jo B also - I feel that her more recent books are kind of flat, but her earlier ones (one favorite is 'Something Wicked' from the Malloren series) are much better. Mary Balogh's Harlequins (those little short ones) are pretty good, but only available on eBay. I enjoy tortured soul type characters, so her 'Silent Melody' is one I like. Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series books are all pretty good. These authors I look upon as producing reliable, intelligent writing, almost always with a real effort made to get into the minds of 18th or 19th century people. Nobody could keep up with the kind of publishing schedule they have to meet (a new book or two every year) and keep it fresh and original.
One more author you might like is Georgette Heyer. These are not sensual at all - most don't even have kissing (they were written in the 1920s-30s). Almost all are set in the Regency time period, and indeed she pretty much invented this genre. All the books(there are a lot - like 50) are meticulously researched, fun and frothy. Kind of like a giddy version of Jane Austen."
This woman is very insightful and has excellent taste! I'm definitely going to look into her recommendations!