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I loved reading the lists that people made up of their top 16 books this past week in honor of Kathleen Winsor. In making up my own lists of top books (either for the end of the year or for something else), I struggle with competing concepts. There are my favorite books. There are books that I think are well written. There are books that I find to be groundbreaking. These three types of books don’t always overlap for me.
I have books that I love to re-read time and again. Are they the best books ever written in the romance genre? Probably not. For example, Savage Thunder by Johanna Lindsey is one of my favorite romances. Savage Thunder is about a half breed who is hired by Jocelyn Fleming, a recently widowed virgin duchess. It seems hard to believe that Lindsey was able to fit all those iconic (ironic?) tropes into one heroine, but she did. The hero’s name is Colt Thunder. I know! It’s hard to type that without giggling. Despite the cliches, this book works for me.
One of the things I loved about this book was Jocelyn’s world view. Sex is something to be enjoyed. She has few prejudices which is believable given that she spends three years traveling around the world. She decides she wants to take a lover but she cannot take one who may have known Edward, her deceased husband. She doesn’t want anything to impugn his memory. When her entourage was in Mexico, she found several men attractive but her interest wasn’t returned. When she was in the Middle East, she was too raw from Edward’s death. (She found the boldness of the men to be “sheer arrogance and audacity”). Now she longs for a bold man.
Instead Jocelyn gets Colt Thunder who aids Jocelyn’s group.
“I’m not associated, as you put it, with anyone, lady. Christ, what is this with all the questions? Either you want out of there or you don’t. Now, I can understand if you feel you’d be dirtying your hand putting it to mine for a lift up”-‘the impatience turned distinctly bitter here-‘”but I don’t see much alternative just now-‘unless you want to wait for the next fellow who comes passing by.”
“Not at all,” Jocelyn said with relief, certain now he meant them no harm. “A little dirt can be easily washed off,” she added with a smile, having misunderstood his meaning.
Colt has been the subject of terrible racial violence. As a half breed, he is viewed as a non person by both groups. He has barely recovered from being nearly whipped to death for having the audacity to touch a white woman. He views whites with suspicion and has a hard time wrapping his head around Jocelyn’s seeming indifference to his half breed status.
“I was born in this country, but folks got a different name for me, lady. I’m a half-breed.”
“How interesting,” she said, aware his tone had turned bitter again, but choosing to ignore it. “It sounds like something to do with stock and crossbreeding. What does it have to do with people?”
He stared at her for a moment as if she were crazy; then he swore under his breath before snarling, “What the hell do you think it has to do with people? It means I’m only half white.”
His tone gave her pause, but still she asked, “And the other half?”
Jocelyn’s refusal to accept Colt’s prejudice (either his own or other’s toward him) provides a great source of humor throughout the story. Savage Thunder has a heroine looking to rid herself of her virginity; a half breed with a chip on his shoulder a mile wild; and a secondary romance between the heroine’s best friend and companion, a sexually experienced woman, and one of Jocelyn’s guards. This book was published in 1989. I found it awesome when I first read and I get a little thrill each time I crack it open for a re-read. But is it one of the best books that has been written?
Well written books
One thing that I never really noticed or even paid attention to before I got online was layering or theming in a book. I never really understood character arcs, patterns or even plots. I joined Jennifer Crusie’s yahoo group in 2001 and her contribution to that list provided some of the most illuminating information about writing I have ever read. I started thinking about romances more critically. Over the years, I’ve learned to examine books a bit more clinically but I respond to books from my gut.
There are times when my gut and my head don’t work in synchronism. Flowers from the Storm (pub. 1992) is book that I can recognize as being an amazingly well crafted story. When I see it on “Best of” lists, I nod my head in agreement. It is a well written book, probably one of the best in the genre. If you were to give this book to someone who doesn’t read romance, I think that person would be hard pressed to find that there is anything about it that norms the stereotypes.
The hero is Christian Langland, Duke of Jervaulx, who spends most of his time drinking and whoring, living the life of luxury and ease. He was also a brilliant mathematician who had been working on a paper with the father of Archemedia Timms. Maddy, as she is known, despises Christian for his lifestyle and for the attention that he receives from her father.
Christian suffers a stroke after a duel and his family decides to institutionalize him in order to seize control over his assets. Maddy finds him there and knows that he is neither mad nor stupid, but unable to speak and with diminished hearing. Maddy is moved to help Christian.
Neither Maddy or Christian are delightful characters. Christian is a selfish cad, even after he suffers his stroke. Kinsale does a superb job of showing us his personal anguish at being taken for a madman and placed in an institution. Maddy is self righteous. She is unbending from her faith and her beliefs even unto the end, although her love for Christian, a non Quaker, is the basis of her greatest break with her religion. The constant criticism that Christian and Maddy receive from external forces (his family, her Quaker friends) only serves to strengthen their bond.
Stunningly, Kinsale maintains the characters’ mannerisms even in their narrative dialogues. In other words, Maddy’s personal thoughts are still in the Quaker-ease, using the thees, thous, and other mannerisms. Ditto for Christian. There is nothing trite or frivilous in this book. It’s a serious examination of vulnerabilities, growth, questions of faith, and acceptance of personal frailties.
Having said that, Flowers from the Storm is a book I’ve only read a couple of times. I find myself curiously detached from the romance. It’s not an easy read and I don’t count it was one of my favorites. It’s not even my favorite Kinsale (For My Lady’s Heart and The Shadow and the Star vie for that).
There are a few titles that, in hindsight, I find to be rather groundbreaking within the genre. Groundbreaking for me is a book that sets off a rash of imitators or brings a certain sub genre into popularity. Some groundbreaking books in my opinion include: Stephanie Laurens, Devil’s Bride (pub 1998); Christine Feehan’s Dark Prince (pub. 1999); Julia Quinn’s Duke and I (pub 2000).
Devil’s Bride wasn’t the first book to feature the hero in pursuit, but I believe that it’s popularity led to a decade long worth of novels featuring the hero doing the pursuing. Duke and I marked Quinn’s rise to stardom. Did you know that it wasn’t even an NYTimes Bestseller? In fact, Quinn did not make the NYT list until An Offer from a Gentleman, the third in the Bridgerton series. Avon has tried to replicate the tone and voice of Quinn in a number of regency romance releases since the 2000s but Quinn is a one of a kind. Dark Prince by Christine Feehan made the whole paranormal romance subgenre popular.
By virtue of being groundbreaking, to exclude these books from a best of list seems somehow negligent; yet, Dark Prince and Devil’s Bride have been done so repetitively (by the original creators no less) that re-reading the books is almost a chore rather than a pleasure. Duke and I doesn’t even rate on most people’s list as their most favorite Bridgerton novel.
In composing best of lists, do you choose your favorites, the best written, the most groundbreaking? Does it matter? Do you think there are conflicts between those categories? Would you categorize the books differently?