The topic of this Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is top ten books I’d give to readers who’ve never read X. Thinking about how to fill the topic got me thinking about what genres are kind of new to me as a reader. One is mystery/thriller–but I’m really only reading two or three specific authors right now. The other is romance–I’m rediscovering how much I used to enjoy the crazysauce that is the bodice ripper. So these are ten books I’d give to readers who’ve never read historical romance. But only a few clearly fit in the “romance” tag, others are fantasy or literary or whatever you might want to classify them as. They are all stories where I think the romance is as important as the historical setting, though, and I think are good gateways into the genre.
1. Courtney Milan- The Heiress Effect Every time I get my hands on a new Courtney Milan book, I just squee and generally flail. But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be The Heiress Effect. Oliver and Jane are cute, sure, but it’s the background characters and their relationships that make it work for me. Milan’s writing is fun and sparkling, but she’s not afraid to address serious issues, and the history is as important as the romance. There’s also some serious trope dismantling going on.
2. Mary Robinette Kowal- Shades of Milk and Honey Alternate history totally counts. In the most basic sense, this book is a Jane Austen novel with magic, but it definitely rises above the potentially silly premise. Jane and Vincent’s romance is subdued, especially in this first volume of the series, because they are subdued people, but it’s fascinating to watch their relationship grow and mature. Anyone who loves Jane Austen will love this, even if you don’t think you like fantasy.
3. Erin Lindsay McCabe- I Shall Be Near to You This is a fantastic Civil War drama that explores the roles of women in the war through one courageous character. But the central romance is also really potent.
4. Elizabeth Hoyt- Notorious Pleasures I started reading Elizabeth Hoyt because I was about to be stuck on an airplane without a book, and Duke of Midnight was literally the only thing I could find in the airport bookstore that looked remotely interesting (He’s Batman, guys. Regency romance Batman.) Anyway, I really dig her writing style and I’m currently making my way through her Maiden Lane series. I’m actually learning a lot of things I didn’t know anything about, because her characters go to some unusual places for regency romance. And so far Notorious Pleasures has been my favorite, because I just loved the characters.
5. Laura Moriarty- The Chaperone moving on to the 20th century, The Chaperone is a great peek into turn of the century life in the Midwest, and life in 1920s New York. The romance (or, I guess, romances) at the center are definitely unconventional, which I quite enjoyed. It gives way to sap at the end, but some people like sap.
6. Helene Wecker- The Golem and the Jinni If you haven’t read this book: YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK. Just magical and wonderful and beautiful. On the historical side, it really captures the many facets of turn-of-the-century New York City. On the romance side is one of the most unexpected and heartwrenching relationships I’ve ever read.
7. Rainbow Rowell- Eleanor & Park On the one hand, it really hurts to classify a book set when I was a toddler as “historical romance”. But on the other hand: yeah, I’m an old fart, and yeah, the 80s actually were a really long time ago, so there. As good as Rainbow Rowell is at swoony romance (and she is. Reading these characters fall in love, I feel like I’m in love), she’s also really great at conveying a sense of time, through music and movies and clothes.
8. Anna Lee Huber- The Anatomist’s Wife Much, much more mystery than romance, but it’s really the romance that keeps me with this series. Currently Kiera and Gage are stuck in an endless will-they-won’t-they, which is definitely my personal catnip. There’s lots of neat insights to 19th century “forensics,” too.
9. Judith McNaught- Something Wonderful Oddly enough I can’t stand Judith McNaught, except for this book. I’ve tried a few others, and they’ve left me anywhere from ‘meh’ to ‘RAGE’. But something about this one is so dramatic and insane and ridiculous that I just love it. It’s like a template of what people think of when they think historical romance. Crossdressing heroines and random deadly danger and all kinds of insane stuff.
10. E. M. Forster- Maurce Even though Maurice was written in 1913, making it roughly contemporary to the subject matter, it wasn’t published until the seventies, so I’m totally counting it as historical fiction. It’s the story of a young, average, middle-class man confronting his homosexuality, as he is torn between idealistic, platonic love and true passion with someone who is outside his class. It’s gorgeously written, and most important (and revolutionary, for the time), Maurice and Scudder get a happy ending. The movie is fantastic too, one of my all time favorites.