Don't let men put you down for reading romances. Yeah, a lot of romantic fiction is complete trash. However, so is a lot of detective fiction, not to mention spy stories, westerns, and murder mysteries. Like Nelson Algren said, 90% of everything is crap. Romance fiction can be, and often is, done well. What I look for in romances is likable people, heroines with spunk and brains and a sense of humor (or at least 2 out of 3), and heroes who are bright enough to appreciate them. I like my heroines to be connected to other people besides just the hero. Way too many bad romance novels have heroines who have no friends, no families, nobody except the man they fall in love with -- which is to say, they are fundamentally unlike any real woman. The best romance novels show women who have caring, well-drawn relationships, with children, sisters, brothers, parents, friends. Here are some of the books that meet my standards.
Note: To keep up on what's new and really good in romance, look for Kristin Ramsdell's columns in Library Journal; this is a woman who appreciates wit and intelligence in her romance novels. And if you want to get your hands on any of these books, and they're out of print, click here for suggestions on how to find them.
Carly Alexander. The Secret Life of Mrs. Claus. A charming Christmas 3-pack of novellas centered around Rossman's, a family-owned department store, struggling to remain competitive with larger chains. A Mrs. Claus suit hand-sewn by the store founder's wife long ago, becomes the magic ingredient in the lives of 3 women who don it at three different branches of the store. A dancer who had fled Baltimore for fame in NY returns and finds her old love and new life; a single mom trying desperately to get her ex to be a father to their charming, inventive little boy finds a man who's far more interested in doing so, and an heiress to the store's founding family finds that love and the family tradition of charity are more important than running the company.
- Donna Andrews. Murder with Peacocks. A very funny murder mystery centering around a much put upon and highly competent heroine who is maid of honor and general factotum for THREE weddings in a row. She does an extraordinary amount of the work the brides should by rights be doing and would no doubt do more if she didn't keep finding bodies, and her father didn't keep poking his nose in, leading the killer to try to knock him off too. She's funny, and her family is a mite crazed, and a most unlikely suitor is both charmed and amused without ever being able to get her alone long enough between disasters to tell her so. The funniest of the sequels is Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon. Meg is drafted to work the switchboard for her brother's computer game company, Mutant Wizards. As if coping with weird programmers isn't enough, she also answers the phone and becomes enmeshed in the lives of the therapists who share the building. The population includes a variety of dogs, a one-winged buzzard, and too many "Affirmation Bears" to count, both the official ones, programmed with soothing self-help bromides and the ones that have been altered by the programmers. Throw in a murdered blackmailer, who Meg has to identify because the local cops have decided her brother is the best suspect, and you have a rare treat.
- Mary Balogh. The Ideal Wife. A regency romance. An earl is under pressure from his family to marry a beautiful, suitable, conceited girl, and he tells his friend that he would be happy to marry a shy, drab, retiring woman who would be content to live in the country and present him with heirs. Such a woman appears on his doorstep, a distant relative needing help--so he marries her. Too late, he finds that she is talkative, pretty, and adorable, and a managing sort of female as well. Fortunately, it turns out that he likes this.
- Leanne Banks. Some Girls Do. Prim Katie Collins is not the efficient soulless executive assistant she appears. One of four children (all by different fathers) born to a woman considered to be a slut, she hears her mother talking to her, dispensing words of wisdom like, "When traveling, it is best to wear a short skirt in case you need help with your luggage." She works for a rich man she despises, husbanding her money to keep her young brother in an excellent school for the deaf. Her employer demands that while he's away, she will find a husband for his hopelessly unfashionable, chunky daughter, Wilhemina, and the man who wants the job as his security chief will vet the candidates. But Wilhelmina goes off to Texas in search of love and adventure, and Katie and Michael have to track her down. Naturally they fall in love in the process.
- Stephanie Bond. Our Husband. Dr. Natalie Carmichael has just discovered that her husband has wiped out every cent she owned when she's informed he's been in an auto accident. At the hospital, she learns she's not even his wife because he was already married to Beatrix AND he later married Ruby, and exotic dancer who's pregnant with his child. What's worse, the philandering husband dies in the hospital from an assumed heart attack that turns out to be poisoning - and all 3 wives have access to the exotic toxin involved. The cops are so sure it has to be one of them that they aren't looking any farther afield, but they're convinced the incorrigible philanderer had another tootsie on a string and set out to track her down and find the real killer.
- Madeline Brent. Try Moonraker's Bride, or Merlin's Keep or Tregaron's Daughter for starters. All her books [well, really, his -- the author is really Peter O-Donnell, author of the Modesty Blaise books] are historical romances. Virtually all of them involve a clash of foreign cultures with staid British 19th century customs and manners; her heroines, though all British by birth, have been raised in places like China, the Australian outback, or such exotic English backgrounds as a traveling circus. These women wouldn't know how to faint or simper. They're strong, intelligent, gutsy, compassionate women, as likely to rescue the heroes as be rescued by them, all without it ever occurring to them that there's anything unusual about them.
- Meg Cabot. Boy Meets Girl. A funny story, told entirely in e-mails and instant messages. Kate McKenzie works in a newspaper personnel department under TOD (tyrannical office despot). When TOD orders her to fire the lady who brings in delicious baked goodies, and herself violates the rules, Kate is among the people sued. She hates attorneys, especially the attorney who's engaged to TOD, so she isn't prepared to cut that attorney's brother, Mitch, any slack. But he turns out to be an entirely different breed, more interested in justice. Unfortunately, that results in Kate's getting fired, stuck with the blame for the illegal action, but Mitch and Kate's good buddies team up to prove the truth of the matter.
- Emily Carmichael. Finding Mr. Right. Lydia Keane, who has spent her life enticing men, has an affair with the husband of her best friend, Amy. Killed along with Amy's husband when somebody tries to rob his car, she is told she's in limbo until she makes up for what she did to Amy by finding her the perfect husband. Only problem is she's returned to earth in the form of a Welsh corgi - Amy runs a Corgi rescue service. Amy turns out to be more appealing than Lydia ever thought she was, with two men hanging after her, and Lydia eventually realizes that the perfect husband for Amy might be someone she wouldn't find very appealing. The robbery of Amy's car, that led to Lydia's death, turns out to be only the start of several robberies and an arson - somebody wants something Amy has, and the welsh corgi has to help figure out who and what. Hilarious book.
Carla Cassidy. The Perfect Family. When a woman is rude to recently widowed Marissa, the woman ends up murdered, with a gift bow on her forehead and a note saying that this is a gift to Marissa. As the only Marissa in town, she and her friends and family are suspects, even moreso as other people who behave rudely to her also turn up murdered. Someone seems to have an obsession with her, complete with anonymous heavy breathing phone calls, and she has to be a little bit nervous about the one new man in her life, her first love Alex.
- Judy Christenberry. Mama's Disappointment. A regency romance. Emma is tall, ungainly, and uninterested in society, and would much prefer to stay in the country running the family estate, but her stepmother is determined to marry her off. Richard Fairfax decides Emma would make the perfect mother for his orphaned daughter, and stepmama insists that she accept. Emma's future mother-in-law takes her in, fixes her up, and gives her a relaxed atmosphere to flourish in, and Richard finds that there's a lot more woman there than he bargained for. Christenberry is one of the better Georgette Heyer imitators.
- Marian Cockrell. The Revolt of Sarah Perkins. A small town in the west in the 1800's has so few women that every woman brought in to be a schoolteacher marries and leaves them teacherless. The head of the school board resolves to hire a woman so plain that nobody will want to marry her, and Sarah Perkins, a spinster from New England, is who they choose. She's a brilliant teacher--indeed, much of the pleasure of the book is watching her awaken a love of learning in the children--and a spirited woman who shakes things up. Of course, the man most shaken by her is the head of the school board, who chose her because in her photo she looked docile. You'll also want to read her Mixed Blessings, about Freddy, a southern woman, at the turn of the century, forced to turn her home into a boarding house when her mother dies, leaving no money to live on and to send her younger brother to college; the man she plans to marry is waiting on an inheritance which won't materialize if he marries her. The cast of characters she assembles in the boarding house includes a gentle but strange old man who draws hex symbols to ward off evil spirits, and makes up the most unusual blessings for the dinner table, especially when "jeer and carp are sounding"; a malevolent old woman and her charming young daughter; and another feisty old lady and her ex-jailbird son. They get along well enough until they are quarantined with scarlet fever, and until they have to fend off the grasping relatives of the dotty old guy. By the time their problems are resolved, and Freddy's boyfriend is ready to marry her, Freddy has another suitor, and her choice of two interesting, likable men. All the characters are interesting, and Freddy is a delight.
- Catherine Coulter. The Maze. The first in Coulter's FBI series, which are terrific romantic suspense. Pianist Lacey Sherlock became an FBI agent and specialist in the criminal mind when her sister was murdered by a serial killer who imprisons women in a maze. Working on a serial killers project, which gives her access to a great deal of detailed information about the man who murdered her sister, she sees signs that her sister's killer is at it again, and offers herself up as a decoy to her prime suspect. Along the way, she pairs up with her boss Dylan Savitch. If you like this one, read the rest of the series in order; you'll enjoy them just as much. My favorite of the sequels is probably Blind Side, a chilling syory about incredibly determined kidnappers who keep trying to re-take a child who's already been rescued by police once.
- Alisa Craig. The Grub and Stakers Move a Mountain. Greedy people are plotting to build a housing complex on a hill where it will cause an ecological disaster. The women of Lobelia Falls rise up as one to organize politically to defeat the villains. Funny, fast-paced, and farcical, with a nice romance thrown in.
- Jennifer Cruisie. Tell Me Lies. Maddie Faraday has just discovered her husband is cheating on her and she's annoyed even though she doesn't really much like him anymore. She's even more upset when she finds in their deposit box thousands of dollars in unexplained cash, tickets to Brazil for two, and a passport for him and one for her daughter. When former boyfriend CL Sturgis comes to town hoping to ask her husband about some financial hankypanky at his business, Maddie and CJ repeat history in the back seat of her husband's car out at the old lover's lane. So when her husband's body turns up in a car at lover's lane, Maddy is a definite suspect, even though in that small town, she is known as the eternal good girl. Very funny. Some great lines in it. Also, Crazy for You. Quinn McKenzie has drifted into a relationship with the high school coach, everybody's favorite man, but when he won't let her keep the mangy dog she's adopted - worse, when he takes it to the pound - she moves out and starts a new life, determined to put some pizzazz in her life. But the coach refuses to believe she means it, and soon his pursuit turns to stalking and seriously threatening behavior. Meantime, she's realized that her ex-brother-in-law is kind of a hunk (and he's been attracted to her for years but always considered her off-limits). While she's working this out, her best friend and her mother also decide they want something more out of life. Her mother moves her lesbian sweetheart into her house, and her best friend and her father move into Quinn's house. Everything works out, though with more than a bit of confusion and laughter. Priceless. So is Welcome to Temptation. Sophie and Amy Dempsey have a business in Cincinnati videotaping weddings, but Amy wants something bigger, and figures the chance to film a documentary about a local movie starlet coming back to her home town Temptation is going to be her way to Hollywood. Sophie, the only responsible adult in a family of scoundrels, has raised both Amy and her brother Davy, who set this up. Unbeknownst to Sophie, the movie starts turning into a porn film, just as the city council, driven by an ambitious born-again would-be mayor, has passed an anti-porn law to shut the movie down. The mayor, Phin Tucker, part of a long line of mayors, falls for Sophie, and vice versa, but can'' figure out what to do about it. He starts finding out things he never wanted to know, about his mother, wife's death, and the habits of some of the citizens of Temptation. Funny and farcical with really great dialog.
- Celeste DeBlaisis. Wild Swan. The first book in a series about a family founded by an English woman who is loved passionately by two men, both of whom, in their own ways, betray her. She founds a clan of strong men and beautiful women who breed horses in England and then America. These are interesting and likable characters, and the historical milieu of the late 18th century is well drawn. The other books in the series are Swan's Chance and A Season of Swans, which take the family through the Civil War.
- Jane Dentinger. Murder on Cue and First Hit of the Season. These are the first two books about actress Jocelyn O'Roarke. They are actually murder mysteries, centered around the theater, but Josh helps a hunky detective solve the mysteries, and they fall for each other. Josh is a wonderful character, not only a good actress but an inspired teacher. She and her detective exchange a lot of witty dialogue, and the relationship's a good one.
- Rhonda Dixon. Corrie's Cat Ring. Corrie is a widow with a young son in Little League, which she ends up coaching, much to the disdain of the fathers of the other boys--she doesn't care about winning, she cares about making sure everyone gets to play. An unattached father becomes her ally and falls for her, in spite of the hectic pace of her life. In Man around the House the heroine has a huge old house that's falling apart, kids to take care of, a goat and miscellaneous animals, an irresponsible ex-husband who won't take responsibility for anything,and a job to support them all. What she doesn't have is time to do all the work that needs doing, so she advertises for a "man around the house." Nobody believes this is innocent, including the ex-husband, who becomes suddenly attentive again. Especially not when she and her "man around the house" fall for each other big-time. Dixon is a woman who understands how overburdened most women are these days, and gives us some wonderful fantasies about getting out from under and being loved madly at the same time.
- Tess Gerritsen. Keeper of the Bride. It's just as well Nina Cormier was stood up at the church, because if she hadn't been, she and her husband would have been killed by the bomb that blew up the church. In fact, her ex-fiance does end up being murdered, and repeated attempts are being made on her life (the fact that they keep failing being profoundly embarrassing to the paid killer). The head of the bomb squad wants to know what enemies she has, but as far as she knows, she doesn't have any. He takes on the job of protecting her quite willingly, since he's fallen for her bigtime. Together they figure out why she's a target. Also, Whistleblower. Catherine Weaver, driving in a rainstorm, runs into Victor Holland; she hauls him into her car and takes him to the hospital where she learns he had been shot. She goes back to the home of the friend she was visiting, and the next morning finds the friend murdered. Victor shows up on her doorstep and warns her she's become a target of the same people who tried to kill him, because he has evidence that the government has been funding viral warfare research. Victor doesn't trust the FBI, thinks the agent he was going to talk to set him up, so he and Cathy are on the run from utterly ruthless people.
- Dorothy Gilman. The Tightrope Walker. Amelia has survived a traumatic childhood, and part of putting herself back together again is starting an antique shop. In one of the antiques she finds a message from a woman who believed she was about to be murdered. Amelia consults a handwriting expert, a nice young man who believes the woman who wrote the note was absolutely serious, and together, they track the woman to find out what happened. In doing so, they bring a killer to justice, and find each other. The story centers around the book the murdered woman wrote, The Maze in the Heart of the Castle, a children's book that helped get Amelia through some troubled times. Gilman then went on to publish The Maze in the Heart of the Castle. If you read The Tightrope Walker you will certainly want to go on to read this. Also, try her new book, Thale's Folly. Andrew Thale is an author now paralyzed with writers' block, working unhappily for his tyrannical father, who sends him to investigate his inheritance, Thale's Folly, a house and property formerly owned by his aunt Harriet. Andrew, stranded by the potholes that mangled his car, finds that the property is inhabited by friends of aunt Harriet, even though she died five years ago. The friends are altogether strange and wonderful - young Tarragon, who he falls in love with, Miss L'Hommedieu, who tells the beginnings of stories, but never finishes them, Gussie the witch, and Leo, booklover and anarchist. Just as he comes to realize that they must not be thrown out, and the property must NOT be sold by his father and turned into a bunch of pseudo Swiss chalets, he discovers Aunt Harriet's will bequeathing the estate to Tarragon and Miss L'Hommedieu. Then he has to find out why he is being pursued, and how to enable them all to live on the estate when they cannot find the money Aunt Harriet hid. In the process, he learns much about himself, and finds a story he has to tell at last.
- Paula Gosling. Fair Game. Please disregard the movie that was made of this book; by all accounts, it was dreadful. The book, on the other hand, is quite suspenseful. The heroine sees something she shouldn't, done by somebody she should by rights recognize. In fact, she doesn't realize she saw a contract killing, and she didn't recognize the killer, but he doesn't know that. He thinks she jeopardizes a lucrative career as an assassin, and he sets out to kill her. He misses, but cheerfully takes out a number of innocent bystanders. The police detective assigned to work with her is an ex-sniper himself, a psychologically damaged man who is able to think like the killer. Together they run, pursued by the assassin, and fall in love along the way. If you don't have a problem with blood and gore along with your romance, this is a knockout of a book.
- Heather Graham. Spirit of the Season. Becky is a widow with 3 children. Despite her precarious finances, she doesn't hesitate to offer a home to her nephew. With all those kids and no money, there's full time chaos, and full-time juggling of responsibilities, so when a man comes into her life, she decides on his behalf that he can't possibly want to deal with all her problems. But he's a baseball coach, and for her nephew, who needs to belong, and wants to be on the baseball team, she brings the man back into her life. Warm and amusing, and a good love story.
- Georgette Heyer. The originator of the regency romance, and still the best at it. Few of her imitators can match her for style, amusing characters, witty heroines and heroes, accurate period detail, and comic pacing. Start with Frederica, about a woman who considers herself too old for marriage, who sets out, with little money, to find a reasonably wealthy husband for her sister, who can then take care of the younger boys and set the older brother up in life. Frederica foists them all on a distant cousin, a bored, rich, handsome man. He is intrigued by Frederica's bossy independent charm, and comes to be fond of Frederica's family. (The boys are well-drawn, troublesome, and entirely likable.) The family life is beautifully shown; the dialogue is witty. Also try Sylvester, or, The Wicked Uncle, a farce about a man who is far too impressed with himself and his title and wealth, and a heroine who takes him down a peg by using him as the wicked uncle in a gothic romance she writes. What she hadn't counted on was falling in love with him, and he with her, nor had she thought the book would be a scandalous success. Then, if you liked these, there are another 30 or 40 of her books, many of them very nearly as good.
- Kay Hooper. Whisper of Evil. Nell Gallagher returns to her hometown Silence to settle her father's estate. But she is also part of the FBI's telepath team, and she is investigating a series of linked deaths that may be murders, all of men who appeared respectable but were found to harbor some loathsome vices. She finds her own father's apparent heart attack was part of the series, and that her sister, believed to have left town with another woman's husband, is somehow connected. At considerable risk to herself and the man she loves, her psi powers reveal the truth. Part of a whole series by Hooper involving heroines with different psychic abilities, working with special agent and telepath Bishop, using psi to track serial killers. If you have no trouble accepting the basic premise, you'll find them suspenseful and engrossing. Try also Stealing Shadows, in which Cassie Neill, part of a family of psychics, who is able to get flashes of what's going on in people's minds. Because that has included the minds of killers, she has worked with police on capturing them, but when she's too late to save a little girl, she leaves LA, moves to North Carolina where she's inherited her aunt's home. But there's a killer here, too, and when she gets flashes of his intentions, she warns the sheriff, who blows her off, and the judge, who takes her more seriously. Sure enough, the killer starts to work, and things are happening pretty much as Cassie said they would, but the sheriff still doesn't quite believe her until she saves his sweetie. Also part of this series, Hiding in the Shadows. Faith Parker has true and complete amnesia following an automobile accident and extended coma. Her friend Dinah, a journalist, who paid her medical expenses and sat by her bed regularly, has disappeared, and Faith is mentally linked to her, has flashes in which she sees Dinah being tortured. Working with Kane, a man who loved Dinah, she learns something about her prior life and connection with Dinah, and realizes that she was the source of the story Dinah was pursuing that eventually cost her her life. Or did it?
- Linda Howard. Now You See Her. Paris Sweeney used to paint delicate landscapes, but something is happening to her. She's acquired some psychic powers, which have taken over and changed the character of her painting. It's become richer and more violent, for she sometimes gets up in the middle of the night and paints murders which turn out to be real. Her gallery's owner is in the middle of a nasty divorce from the man who funded the gallery, and Sweeney falls in love with him, though she refuses to sleep with him while he's still married. When his about-to-be-ex-wife is murdered, it solves one problem and presents another, because Sweeney has been painting, bit by bit, the murder scene, before it ever happened. The police are suspicious, but she convinces them her psychic powers are real. All that remains is for her to finish the painting and find out who the killer is. Also, To Die For, in which funny, mouthy Blair Mallory, successful owner of a fitness center, has her life disrupted by someone who is trying to kill her, and by the detective who comes back into her life as a result, a man who'd walked away from a promising hot romance with her a couple of years ago. He moves her in with him to protect her, but she still ends up in danger -- which she is fully capable of extracting herself from, but she doesn't at all mind having this particular cavalry charging to the rescue. Wonderful heroine and hero who are in like as well as love, great witty dialogue. I'd recommend any of Howard's novels from the past 10 years. They're suspenseful, the heroines are bright, tough and dedicated, the heroes are smart enough to appreciate them.
- Iris Johansen. Fatal Tide. Melis Nemid is a survivor. Sold into sexual slavery as a child, she was rescued by a treasure hunter whose dream is to find the lost island of Marinth. Now grown and a marine biologist, she refuses to assist him, and retreats to her island home with her dolphins, Pete and Susie. But her rescuer summons her to help him, and in doing so, unleashes a depraved killer on her who also seeks Marinth, not because of its treasures but because stored there is a geological knowledge that could be used as an extremely powerful weapon. Melis joins forces with a man who also seeks Marinth, and though she's not a trusting woman, she trusts him and draws from him the strength to fight the memories the killer throws in her face. I recommend most of Johansen's books, since they all are full of suspense and danger for heroes and heroines who are fully up to the challenge.
- Jeannine Kadow. Burnout. Lacie Wagner still bears the crippling scars on her hands from the fire that killed her father when his car crashed. She has been haunted by nightmares about it, and a belief that the crash was not an accident - that it was caused by somebody who ran and hid and watched and gloated. Now Lacie's daughter has been kidnapped, and she's sure it's by the same person. FBI agent Jack Stein thinks she's on to something and helps her figure out who the killer is and why he hates her.
- Jayne Ann Krentz. Eclipse Bay. First of a trilogy about the feuding Harte and Madison families. When Hannah Harte is 20, and escaping from a suitor intent on rape, she is escorted home by Rafe Madison, which turns out to his benefit when he is suspected of killing the girlfriend whose body is found in the bay that night. Rafe is a bad boy, whose ambition is limited to staying out of jail, leaves town and over the years, he becomes an outstanding chef. When Hannah's aunt leaves her home to both Hannah and Rafe, they are forced into an uneasy partnership, as she wants to run the house as an inn, and he wants to start a restaurant. Fortunately, when they fall in love, they can do both together. But first they have to solve the mystery of the death of Rafe's old girlfriend. If you like this, follow the rest of the family saga in the two remaining books in the series, Dawn in Eclipse Bay.
- Elsie Lee. Wingarden. I start you with the only one published in hardbound, so you will find it in libraries (earlier ones may be found by scrounging among paperbacks in used book stores). Chloe inherits an estate from her grandmother in Virginia and finds herself in the middle of a series of Ku Klux Klan attacks on local blacks. She has to learn what her grandmother intended her to do with the estate, figure out who she can trust, aid the victims of the racist violence, and find out who is orchestrating the racial tension. And decide which of the men courting her is the one she wants. Chloe is spunky and full of fight, and her man is almost good enough for her.
- Elizabeth Lowell. Moving Target. Serena Charters' grandmother has been murdered in a fire set by napalm, and a mysterious message she left suggests the reason was a medieval illuminated manuscript, four pages of which accompany the letter. She consults an authority on medieval manuscripts, Erik North, who is oddly familiar to her - she has dreams of a woman resembling her and a man resembling him living the experiences that a medieval tapestry (like those she now weaves) illustrates. Word spreads swiftly through the collectors' community, and a number of people are after the manuscript they believe she has, even though one of the most determined is insisting it's a fake. More murders ensue, producing clues that lead Serena and Erik to the manuscript at last, as well as a confrontation with the killers.
- Dorothea Malm. On a Fated Night. Elisabeth, a 25-year old American painter, goes to Paris in the 1870's, just after the war is over to learn her craft. There she meets a stunningly beautiful young man, son of a banker, who understands her painting, claims to love her, and clearly needs her. She agrees to marry him, swiftly, and without the knowledge of his family, who he swears will adore her. Instead she learns that there is nothing they could have wanted less when they demanded that Remy, suspected of homosexuality, take a bride. But since he has, they demand of her that she must become one of them, learn to talk and think in French, give up her art; they even burn her paintings. She begins to adapt to the family, to see the justice of their claims, but the more she learns about Remy, the more despicable he comes to her. Slowly, she learns to understand as well as speak French, but it's frustrating, as there are so many words she misses, so much meaning that it's like being permanently 8 years old. What keeps her sane is being able to speak in English with the Count who is the family friend. When Remy is found murdered, and she is the most likely suspect, she has no way of defending herself - she understands too little of the rapid French the police throw at her. Eventually the family saves her, and she is free to live on her own in a quiet French village, painting her pictures. The story is reconstructed from bits and pieces of memory years later, to and by the count, as she is trying to understand what happened and why. Fascinating. Unfortunately, this was published in 1965, so good luck in finding a copy.
- Curtiss Ann Matlock. Lost Highways. Rainey Valentine, 36 and twice-divorced, has inherited her mother's horse wagon and has gone onto the barrel racing circuit. On the road one night, she rescues a dazed victim of a car accident, a man who turns out to be a doctor trying to break free of his family's goals for him and move toward his own goal of taking care of old people. He joins up with Rainey on her travels and falls for her, admiring her straightforwardness and good humor; she just thinks he's gorgeous and a nice man. Works out. Matlock's other romances are also centered around likable women in their 40s, living in small town Oklahoma.
- Anne McCaffrey. The Kilternan Legacy. The heroine divorces a despicable husband and takes her children to Ireland where she has inherited an estate. She has to get to know the people around her in order to figure out what her strong-willed aunt wanted her to do with it, and who she is supposed to help. (If this sounds at all familiar here, McCaffrey was a good friend of Elsie Lee, and their romances have a similar kind of appeal.) Heroine and kids alike are very likable; the hero is almost good enough for her; the ex-husband, playing one too many dirty tricks, is thoroughly routed and shamed. McCaffrey's other romance books include The Lady, and Ring of Fear, and The Mark of Merlin, all of them well worth reading.
- Dinah McCall. Storm Warning. Ginny Shapiro learns that of seven little girls who were part of a special class of "gifted" children for one year in a school long since burned down, she is the only survivor. In the last few months, each of these now grown women has received a phone call and then committed suicide, though at least Sister Mary saw what was happening and sent information about it to Ginny and to her old friend turned FBI agent Sullivan Dean. Dean finds Ginny and stays on the run with her while trying to trace the connection. Good setup for a romance. McCall also writes as Sharon Sala (see below).
- Judith McNaught. Night Whispers. Sloan Reynolds, a pretty and thoroughly competent policewoman, is asked by the FBI to accept the invitation she has just been given to visit the wealthy father she has never known - they suspect he is doing something highly illegal, and want Sloan to keep them informed of anything unusual she sees while she's there. She enchants everybody she meets there, including her newfound sister and the charmingly outrageous teenager whose wealthy older brother Noah falls in love with her (and she with him). But when her newfound great-grandmother, who has just changed her will to include Sloan, is found murdered, Sloan is the immediate suspect, and her true purpose is revealed; all the people who adored her now regard her as a betrayer. And her continued existence endangers the real killers. Whatever the story lacks in plausibility is more than compensated for by a warm, loving heroine surrounded by equally interesting women.
- Judith Michael. Acts of Love.. A great actress whose career has been cut short by a serious injury, and a director, tied to each other by their love for an older actress they share: his grandmother, and her friend and mentor. The older woman had hoped to marry them off, but they never really got to know each other until the older woman dies, and the director discovers the correspondence between the women. He comes to love the woman in those letters, and eventually, their own relationship is built with letters. But the neatest thing about the book is that it is atleast as much about friendship between women; the heroine has not only the older actress, but also the producer who befriends her and gives her a chance to direct. There was an enormous warmth and depth to the book, some of it revealed by the struggles all of them are going through to create living breathing characters on the stage, to create truth by creating illusion. The author, "Judith Michael," is actually a husband and wife team, and they do seem to work extraordinarily well together.
- Kasey Michaels. Maggie Needs an Alibi. Maggie Kelly, writer of detective stories set in regency England and solved by a regency dandy named Saint Just, aided by his endearing but thick sidekick, is astonished to find both of these characters come to life and sharing her apartment with her. Furthermore, she finds that the regency dandy is fun to read about but pretty insufferable to live with, at least outside his regency milieu; even his sidekick starts finding him kind of selfish and careless. But when a real life murder mystery presents itself and Maggie is the chief suspect, Saint Just needs to find out if he is capable, without Maggie's help, of solving the mystery and clearing her. Also check out Michaels' other romances, like Love To Love You, Baby, in which a pitcher whose career has been ended by an arm injury ends up caring for a baby, aided by an interior decorator who's nearly as clueless about babies as he is, or Be My Baby Tonight, about the pitcher's brother Tim. Suzanna Trent has adored him all her life - has covered for him, given him answers to test questions, done his homework for him. When she meets up with him again at a Phillies game he's catching for and he asks her to marry him, she does it, flying to Las Vegas for a quick wedding. Only later does she get suspicious about why he asked her.
Lynn Michaels. Honeymoon Suite. When a conniving relative embezzles millions of dollars from Dory Lambert's father's investment firm and flees, disguising himself with multiple identities, an FBI agent is convinced Dory's father was in on the scheme and freezes his accounts to force him home from a friend's estate in a non-extraditable location. Dory and her aunt use their own inheritances to pay off the investors, and Dory turns their money-pit estate into an elite hotel to keep it, and beloved old family retainers going. The chauffeur's son who Dory has always been crazy about, is now a fabulously wealthy architect, and Dory's sister Jill sets out to marry him to get $20 million to secure the estate so they can shut down the hotel business. Trouble is, he loves Dory and Jill loves the none-too-competent FBI agent she has ordered to go find the villain.
- Linda Nichols. Handyman. Maggie Ivey is a single mom, ditched when she became pregnant, and struggling to work, take care of her child, and survive in spite of a boss who has gypped her out of salary and fringe benefits he promised her while he is also putting moves on her. When a friend pays for her to have therapy with a trendy psychologist, she arrives at the office sobbing, and the nice young doctor just sits there and listens to her - and she realizes that nobody has ever done that before. This is because he isn't the psychologist at all, but the contractor who's remodeling the doctor's office. He is so moved by maggie that he can't bring himself to tell her the truth - he just keeps showing up for her appointments. Not only that, he fixes the locks on her unsafe apartment, and marches her down to her workplace and confronts her boss and forces him to cough up the promised benefits or face a lawsuit for sexual harassment. He makes friends with her kid and makes them both fall for him; in the process, he reminds maggie that once she was an adventurous woman who met life with enthusiasm, and an artist; she starts taking charge of her life and environment. Lovely romance.
- Elizabeth Peters. The Camelot Caper. Jessica is an American woman visiting relatives in England,. She's being pursued by a mysterious stranger, and a man who writes gothic romances comes to her aid. She is charming and funny; he is resourceful and funny, and even the villain, her cousin John (as it was retitled in paperback) is funny. The mystery centers around an archaeology scam, and hero and heroine pass through many of England's most historic sites en route to Jessica's family's home--the drunken midnight visit to Stonehenge is not to be missed. Peters' other early novels are also terrific romances, especially The Dead Sea Cipher, centered around a previously unknown dead sea scroll and the people who would like to get their hands on it. (Elizabeth Peters is really Barbara Mertz, a Ph.D. in archaeology.) In her later novels, there is far less romance, and a lot more mystery.
- Susan Elizabeth Phillips. It Had To Be You. Phoebe inherits her father's money on the condition that she run his pro football team and that, within a year, it wins the AFC championship. The men who think that rightly it should have come to them are outraged, especially since, to begin with, Phoebe acts like an irresponsible twit. However, she settles down and does a decent job of actually running the team; certainly she cares a lot more about the players' personal problems than any male owner does. She earns the respect and love of her head coach. Phillips' heroines in general are a little masochistic for my taste--when the men in their lives assume they are dim and selfish and dishonest, they put up with it far longer than they should--but they are also spunky and bright and funny. Try also Breathing Room, in which prim, precise know-it-all Dr. Isabel Favor, author of Four Cornerstones for a Favorable Life, has just had all four collapse out from under her - her fiance ditches her, her accountant absconds with her money, the IRS is after her for the taxes he was supposed to have paid, and, a laughing stock, she's lost her clients, her book contract, and her speaking engagements. She goes to Italy to get away and try to write a different book, and falls for Lorenzo Gage, Hollywood's favorite screen villain, who owns the villa she's staying in (despite the inexplicable efforts of the villagers to keep her out). A managing woman, Isabel starts solving people's problems for them, while at the same time Lorenzo loosens her up considerably. I recommend virtually everything Phillips has written.
- LuAnne Rice. Cloud Nine. Sarah Talbot, recovering from surgery that removed a brain tumor, is in love with the world she never thought to see again. She hires the pilot who gave her a birthday ride when she got out of the hospital to take her for a Thanksgiving visit to the island off the coast of Maine where she grew up, where she hopes to improve her relationship with her prickly widowed father and her 17 year old son. The pilot's 15 year old daughter, suffering from the loss of her brother in a boating accident, sneaks on board the plane; once in Maine, she becomes part of the family and falls innocently in love with Sarah's son. But on the trip home, it becomes clear that Sarah's cancer has metastasized and she hasn't long to live; her pilot, who has fallen in love with her, flies her back to the island to die, but not before he marries her, and not before knowing her has made it possible for both the pilot and his daughter to finally accept the loss of their son and brother. Also, Safe Harbor. Dana Underhill is a renowned painter of seascapes, but when her sister drowns along with her husband, two young girls are orphaned and Dana has been designated as their guardian. Allie is an easy child, but Quinn is tempestuous and resistant; she wants no part of Dana's plan to take them to France with her, so Dana is forced to stay in their seaside home in Connecticut, trying to make contact with Quinn and with her art - her desire to paint has suddenly abandoned her. Sam Trevor, marine biologist, comes to her aid; he is younger than Dana, but he has adored her ever since she and her sister taught him sailing and then saved his life.
- Caryl Rivers. Intimate Enemies. You just know when a female college provost, who used to be a Vietnam war protester, meets the new head of ROTC on campus, a Vietnam vet, that they are going to end up together. But as you might suspect, getting there isn't all that easy. These are well-drawn, likable people in spite of (or maybe because of) their scars.
- Karen Robards. Night Magic. A wholly improbable but funny romance, between a CIA agent, who has learned of an assassination plot someone in the CIA is involved in, and the romance writer the spies mistakenly believe to be his lover. They spies kidnap both of them, and they escape, but she insists on taking her cat along in their mad dash across the countryside, as they try to find someone within the CIA hierarchy they can actually trust. Lots of suspense, amusing dialogue, and sex.
- Nora Roberts. There are so many great ones to choose from but Hidden Riches is a good one to start with. All her heroines are bright, and most of them are amusing, but this heroine is especially enjoyable, and the book is full of sharp, witty dialogue. The heroine, owner of an antique store, unknowingly buys some pieces that conceal smuggled valuables; the man who smuggled the goods is hot on their trail, and has no objections to killing people who have them. When she realizes that her customers are being assaulted and killed, she has to find out what's going on. Back in the days when Roberts was still writing heavy-breathing novels for Silhouette, she wrote a lot of books in series, about entire families, like the series about the O'Hurley women (born to a theatrical family), and the series about the MacGregor family. These are fun--it's a pleasure not to lose a character as soon as the book is over. Nora Roberts' stories, I should mention, are very sexy, and they do follow a formula, but if you like them, she's written at least 100 novels you can choose from. Also check out her alter ego, J.D. Robb for her witty, futuristic murder mysteries centered around the tough, scarred homicide detective Eve Dallas and her equally fascinating fantastically rich husband Roarke.
- Sharon Sala. Snowfall. (She also writes as Dinah McCall). Successful mystery author Caitlin Bennett has had a cushy life, though not a happy one, as daughter of an obscenely rich man who didn't like her. Now she's getting hate notes, escalating to subtle death threats, from an unknown person who in the meantime kills women who look like her and carves them up. Her best friend and agent, a gay man who's been trying for ages to fix her up with his brother Mac, who runs a successful security firm, now has the chance to call him in to have him protect her. This time, it works as they fall for each other. But even Mac can't protect her all the time, not when the killer is someone they have reason to trust. Also, Sala's Out of the Dark. Street artist Jade lived a nightmare as a child. Taken by her mother to join a commune, she and the other children are rented out to pedophiles. When at the age of 12 she seriously injures one and is nearly beaten to death herself for it, her friend Raphael, who was himself abused, becomes her protector. They run away, and fend for themselves as best they can. Then one day, her portrait of her mother is seen by a woman who recognizes her; she's a friend of Jade's father, Sam, who's been looking in vain for his daughter for years. Sam asks his investigator friend Luke to find Jade and bring her home, but when he does, the news gets out, and her abusers, now successful men, can't afford to have her alive and telling her story.
- Dallas Schulze. Sleeping Beauty. Neill Devlin, finished with his fourth best-selling true crime story, decides to visit his parents in Florida, while seeing America on his seventy-year old motorcycle, which breaks down in a small town in Indiana. At the garage, he meets Anne Moore and is mightily attracted to her air of innocent unworldliness. Anne is the unloved daughter of an unloving mother who focused all her attention on the pretty daughter, Brooke, who was gruesomely murdered when Anne was ten years old. Since then, the whole town has been fearsomely protective of Anne, and she's never had much of a chance to really live and explore. He changes that when he falls for her. Other Schulze books are also good.
- Deborah Smith. When Venus Fell. An author I'm going to want to read more of. Venus is a world-class pianist, who's performing with her sister in a lesbian bar when Gib Cameron finds her. Her father was a radical, suspected of many crimes against the government, and even though her father's dead, the feds have descended on them in suspicion time after time through the years, robbing her of her possessions, so now she operates in disguise and tries to protect her sister. Gib, an ex-secret service man, has a challenge on his hands winning her trust. But his family needs her. Their hotel in the valley deep in the mountains closed when the family patriarch died in a tragic accident. A cousin is determined they should sell to a developer, and Gib wants to keep the porperty in the family, make a going concern of the hotel. Venus, whose parents got married there on the night the hotel opened, is a good luck symbol for them, and as it turns out, her good sense and straightforwardness cuts through family tensions and gives them the ideas and persistence they need to make things work.
- Dodie Smith. I Capture the Castle. Cassandra is 17, the daughter of a writer who can't write anymore, but who is allowed to live free of charge in a castle. Her family includes a stepmother (an arty ex-model), Cassandra's sister who is desperate to marry and escape their poverty, and her 15 year old brother. When the people who own the castle come to visit, they set off a chain of events that includes Cassandra's touching first love; also, she and her brother force their father to start writing again. She is a charming heroine, a would-be writer who narrates the story in a whimsically humorous style. Also try Dodie Smith's other books, notably The New Moon with the Old, about the Carrington family, who have to fend for themselves when their father is taken off to prison. The Carringtons are very odd, very funny, and very likable.
- Mary Stewart. Madam, Will You Walk? An Englishwoman traveling in France becomes the protector of a 13 year old boy she thinks she is saving from a demented, murderous father. But she finds the father is innocent, framed, and still in danger because he knows something he doesn't know he knows. She helps rescue him, as well as the boy, and falls desperately in love. She's a calm, tough, amusing, resourceful lady, so of course he can't resist her. Mary Stewart has written a number of other romances, the best of them being This Rough Magic and Airs above the Ground.
- Katherine Stone. Happy Endings. In fact, a whole lot of happy endings: Raven Winter, agent, is asked by her author, Holly, to intervene with Jason Cole, a director who has bought her Vietnam romance but plans to replace her happy ending with a sad one. Holly leaves her remote Alaskan village to intervene personally with Cole, and they fall in love. Moreover, Cole knows who Holly really is--child of a Vietnam soldier believed dead, who has come back from being a prisoner of war, and has never stopped looking for his daughter, and he helps them reuinte.. Meantime, Raven has found a man who loves her and helps her get past the scars of her youth. This is a mite on the trashy side, but Stone does involve you with her characters and has you rooting for them all the way.
- Jeanne Williams. No Roof But Heaven. Susannah's fiance died in the civil war fighting for the union. Her father served as a doctor, and lost his health. After ten years of suffering, he has died, and Susannah, who has spent her time nursing him and teaching young ladies in an academy in Ohio, decides to go where her teaching skills are more needed, the frontier. She goes to Mason-Dixon Kansas, not really a town but an assortment of ranches and farms near Dodge, tenanted by former confederates and union men. She knows it will be tricky getting the children of these men to get along, but she creates a spirit of community in her one room sody schoolhouse, where perforce the older children help the young. Susannah starts a regular Friday afternoon event for parents, where they can watch their children display what they''e learned, and get to know each other. Some of the parents are resistant to her teaching a half-breed boy, and the children of Mennonites from Russia, but through their children, they come to know and accept each other. On a frontier where women are scarce, there is no lack of available men for Susannah--the only problem is that the one she wants is pigheaded and convinced he's no good for her. Also see Williams' equally charming Wind Water, about the early days of Oklahoma, just before it was opened up for claims. Julie McCloud, an orphan rescued from a wagon train of dying people by Cap and his pal Mike Shanahan, has been raised in their trade-constructing windmills, without which there is no hope for the farmers of getting water from the wells they have to dig deep. But their efforts are not welcomed by a rancher who has helped himself to all the available open water for his cattle, and in the fray, Cap is killed. Julie and Shanahan carry on the business, befriending a number of other settlers, and working together with a well digger to create an entire community of settlers. A warm and loving story about genuinely likable people.
- Susan Wilson. Beauty. A retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Alix Miller's family has always been artists, and those artists have always painted the portraits of Cromptons. When her father is summoned to paint the portrait of Lee Crompton, he is too ill to go, and Alix goes in his place. Lee is reluctant for her to see him, because he suffers from acromegly and views himself as even more hideous than he is. But when he emerges from hiding and begins to talk to her, she finds him knowledgeable, interesting, and lovable. It takes a long time for her to convince him of her love, and even then, he resists letting the town he lives in see him. Only when presented with a daughter to love and raise does he finally emerge - though at great cost.
***************************see also What Does a Woman Want: a column in which I urge men, if they really want to understand women, to read some romance novels.
Related Web Sites
- Regency Repository--info and links about the Regency period--fashion, music, art, politics, military campaigns, etc.
- the RomanceReader--hundreds or romance novel reviews, interviews with authors, columns about the genre.
- MGPL Webrary Booklist Index -- a great set of reading lists, by genre, character type, historical period, place, readalikes, etc.
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