I've never been very good at New Year's Resolutions. The middle of winter has just never struck me as a time for new beginnings. I prefer to set my goals in the warmer months, or at least on a sunny day. Thus, in early April as I was looking at the 2011 RITA finalists, I set myself a challenge: I would read as many of this years nominees as I could manage to squeeze in.
The RITAs, for those of you who don't know, are the romance equivalent to the Oscars. Every year at their national convention, the Romance Writers of America award the best romances published in categories like Best First Book, Young Adult Romance, and Inspirational Romance. For this week's staff review, I'm focusing on the Historical Romance category.
This year's finalists managed to defy my expectations for historical romance by breaking conventions big and small. I'm hesitant to pick a winner, as I tend to do poorly predicting for the Oscars, Kentucky Derby winners, and March Madness Brackets, and I really did enjoy them all, but I do have a favorite.
A Little Bit Wild by Victoria Dahl
"The man above Marissa York groaned loudly, his breath shuddering over her cheek."
I read the first sentence and paused in dismay, positive the author was being cutely misleading. The implications of that opening line, of our heroine engaged in rather anonymous and unpleasant sex, that just does not happen. But Ms. Dahl was not being cute, and Miss York was indeed more than a little bit wild. I was drawn in by the break from the tradition of the innocent, virginal heroine, and enchanted to recognize the plot's use of Beauty and the Beast (I will read anything based on a fairy tale). The icing on the cake was a supporting cast made up by characters who had a bit of depth and personality, even the villains were sympathetic. Overall, A Little Bit Wild managed to meet my expectations for a satisfying romance with a believable Happily Ever After, AND throw in a few pleasant surprises.
And just for fun, here are my thoughts on the other Historical Romance finalists:
His at Night by Sherry Thomas
You wouldn't think a love story about a woman so desperate to escape her domineering uncle that she's willing to force a marriage with a feather-headed man she's only just met could be funny, but I enjoyed the wit and humor. There's just enough of a mystery to distract from the misunderstandings keeping the characters apart (does anyone else ever want to shake the characters and shout "Just talk to each other!"), that the pages fly by.
A Kiss at Midnight by Eloisa James
Have I mentioned that I'm a sucker for fairy tale adaptions? A Kiss at Midnight is based on Cinderella, and it's the first in a series of fairy tale based novels by Eloisa James. It's light-hearted and fresh; the pages are filled with quirky characters. My favorite part was the hero and heroine's complete inability to keep secrets, thus avoiding painful misunderstandings.
The Forbidden Rose by Joanne Bourne
This book, the third in a series featuring spies and espionage, is set in Revolutionary France, somewhat earlier than the first two books. I found some of the abrupt switches in location or perspective a little jarring, but overall it's a fun adventure filled with double-crosses and determined, capable female characters.
Last Night's Scandal by Loretta Chase
I was horribly upset when I turned the last page and realized that there wasn't any more story. The hero and the delightfully impulsive heroine are on a Gothic-tinged adventure to renovated a Scottish castle, but all the hero really wants is to return to his scholarly pursuits in Egypt.
One Wicked Sin by Nicola Cornick
Beyond it's setting in Regency England, this is anything but a traditional historical romance; the heroine is a divorcée reduced to working in a brothel, and the hero is a French prisoner of war. I enjoyed this departure from the expected, but found it a little steamier than I generally prefer.
Open Country by Kaki Warner
This, the second in a series, was probably my least favorite of the finalists, through no real fault of its own. I'm not a fan of Old West Texas ranch settings, or overly adorable orphaned children, so I probably didn't sit down with the right mindset. It wasn't to my taste, but I know some people I'll be recommending it to!
Countess of Scandal by Laurel McKee
A "Romeo and Juliette" tale set during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the author's first novel, this novel balances the line between bleak and unbelievable. The tension of the impossible romance is only magnified by the growing unrest of the Irish under English rule. The first in a series of Irish historical romances, there is plenty of set up for the next title in the series.