Our reviewer retrospective continues with Miranda Owen's favorite books of this year!
I love making lists. At the end of a year, friends and fellow readers will post about their top favorite five or ten books of the year. I'm not configured that way. Trying to pick only five or ten favorite books out of the hundred or so I've read over the course of a year is unfathomable to me. Instead, I've picked about five or so titles in four different categories. Many of these selections fit a few of the different categories listed here. I mostly read and review romances, but cozy mysteries are my jam too.
Christmas-themed Romance Picks
THE MATCHMAKER'S MISTLETOE MISSION by Jaci Burton
A COWBOY UNDER THE MISTLETOE by Jessica Clare
ONE HOT HOLIDAY by Cynthia Eden
MEET ME UNDER THE MISTLETOE by Stacey Kennedy
ONE CHRISTMAS EVE by Shannon Stacey
There was a ridiculous amount of amazing Christmas-themed romances that came out this year, many of which came out at the end of October. The ones I'm discussing here were my absolute favorites, but there were a bunch more that put a smile on my face. THE MATCHMAKER'S MISTLETOE MISSION by Jaci Burton and A COWBOY UNDER THE MISTLETOE by Jessica Clare are books by two of my favorite authors and feature a "kinda/sorta cowboy" hero. In A COWBOY UNDER THE MISTLETOE, Jason Clements is a former soldier suffering from PTSD and trying to find a job that he can keep. Sage Cooper is a kind woman who is used to helping everyone, and Jason wanders into her life needing her without knowing it. I love a "pretend romance that turns real" story, and A COWBOY UNDER THE MISTLETOE is oodles of fun with great characters.
In THE MATCHMAKER'S MISTLETOE MISSION, Jaci Burton uses the "stranded in a storm" trope in a terrific way. Alice Weatherford is visiting the Red Moss Vineyard to help plan her BFF's wedding. While there, Alice is introduced to rancher, hottie, and all-around good guy Clay Henry. I'm a sucker for "nice guy" heroes and both stories have those. While Clay initially rebuffs Alice's attempts to take advantage of her professional capacity as a matchmaker, he does his best to convince her that they'd be good together. What sold me on Clay is how Clay let Alice know how he felt without being pushy and trying to dictate to her. Both stories include a "getting to know you" period that make the romance seem so much more natural.
ONE HOT HOLIDAY by Cynthia Eden and MEET ME UNDER THE MISTLETOE by Stacey Kennedy both feature lawman heroes, but the tone and the stories are wildly different. In ONE HOT HOLIDAY, sheriff Spencer Lane is trying to save Haley Quick from whatever she’s running from. This story was amazeballs from start to finish. Spencer insists that he's not the straight-arrow good guy Haley thinks he is, but he’s all that and more. Admittedly, I'm not usually a fan of romantic suspense, except when it's Cynthia Eden. ONE HOT HOLIDAY has a plethora of hot guys in addition to the romance and thrills. There are a few bad guys and red herrings in this book, but Haley's instincts are better than she thinks they are.
Stacey Kennedy is no stranger to writing the same kind of romance/suspense mix that’s in ONE HOT HOLIDAY, but MEET ME UNDER THE MISTLETOE is just a big ball of small-town contemporary romance goodness. Penelope Carter and Darryl Wilson knew each other when they were teenagers and crushing on each other. Years later, Penelope appears in Darryl's town a little uncertain about which direction she should take in life. One of the things I really love about MEET ME UNDER THE MISTLETOE is that Darryl never tries to suggest that loving him would be an answer to all Penelope's problems. He encourages her to pursue the things that interest her, and he acts as a source of emotional support as she tries to figure things out on her own. Darryl is a mellow cop hero and his sexy scenes with Penelope are just as much fun as the ones in which they're simply getting to know each other all over again.
I enjoy reading Shannon Stacey's books and eagerly await the next one, but I was initially unsure if I would like ONE CHRISTMAS EVE. The story has the two main characters start out on the wrong foot and have a somewhat adversarial relationship. Thankfully, it's not long before Zoe Randall and Preston Wheeler get to know each other better and put to rest any animosity they may have had. Zoe is not the flake Preston imagines her to be, and Preston is not the rigid jerk he appears to be. There are lots of reasons to appreciate this book: the quaint small-town atmosphere, the fab friendships, and the charming and ever-evolving romance. I love ONE CHRISTMAS EVE for all those reasons, but I really like Preston's vulnerability and the emotional impact this couple's relationship ends up having for me. A book can have the best plot, but for me it's all about the characters.
WHO'S SORRY NOW? By Maggie Robinson
BONES BEHIND THE WHEEL by E.J. Copperman
OWL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS by Donna Andrews
DYING FOR DEVIL'S FOOD by Jenn McKinlay
COACHED TO DEATH by Victoria Laurie
My favorite type of mystery is a cozy - fun characters, murder and mayhem but told in an entertaining way. Just as I enjoy historical romances with paranormal elements, I also enjoy a cozy mystery with one or more paranormal elements. WHO'S SORRY NOW? by Maggie Robinson is a mystery set in 1920s England and the upper class female amateur sleuth is visited - for better or worse - by her late husband. Lady Adelaide Compton works with Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Devenand Hunter to unmask a killer. The suspects, witnesses, and victims are all part of high society. Adelaide can navigate that world so well because she's a part of it. The characters in this story really wowed me and Adelaide is a likable main character. Like many of the mysteries listed here, you get a feel as though you're a part of the investigation and discovery process.
I adore E.J. Copperman's Haunted Guesthouse series and desperately hope that more books are in the future. In the past, I would steer away from cozies written by men about women. At the time, I just wasn't sure that a male author could write an authentic female character from her perspective. I was wrong. Innkeeper Alison Kerby, the amateur sleuth in E.J. Copperman's Haunted Guesthouse series is both likable and extremely down-to-earth. Alison has a stellar assortment of family and friends, but she is realistically flawed. Part of the arrangement that has her guesthouse spooks helping at the inn includes her helping ghost Paul Harrison do most of the legwork that he can't in his investigations. While it may seem like a somewhat bizarre premise, the mysteries are engaging, and the stories are loads of fun. In BONES BEHIND THE WHEEL, a buried car and a buried murder prove to be very puzzling for detectives.
OWL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS by Donna Andrews is a captivating whodunit, but it's also delightfully irreverent like a Preston Sturges film. A group of wily and generally weird ornithologists descend on Caerphilly Inn for Owl Fest 2019. The humor in OWL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS is just as superb as the sleuthing.
In DYING FOR DEVIL'S FOOD by Jenn McKinlay, the amateur sleuth Mel Cooper has her fifteen-year high school reunion and the queen mean girl gets murdered. I love reunion-themed stories and this one had all the expected elements but with a few twists. The familiar supporting characters in this series make it a must-read for fans of cozy mysteries. I was always a fan of Victoria Laurie's seriously spooky mysteries that were full of ghouls and thrills. Her new Cat Cooper series seems to be more of a classic cozy.
In COACHED TO DEATH, Cat now opens a business acting as a life coach to people just as her life starts to unravel. I loved the main characters. Cat and her sidekick Gilley are a terrific crime solving duo and I like the opportunities to inject a hint of romance in Cat’s life.
Contemporary Romance Picks:
PIRACY by L.P. Maxa
ALL IT TAKES by Kristen Proby
DELIVERED WITH A KISS by Marie Harte
RAY by Jennifer Ashley
BETRAYING THE BILLIONAIRE by Victoria Davies
FLASHED by Zoey Castile
All the books in my contemporary romance selections are very different from each other but they're individually awesome. I normally don't read a lot of New Adult romances because, in general, they are too full of angst for me. PIRACY, by L.P. Maxa is still in that New Adult category but it's also super sexy and full of laughs. Jett Matthews is an engaging character in PIRACY. At the opening of the story, Jett is telling the reader about his life - as an essentially modern-day rake going to college in Texas. My favorite type of hero is the classic nice guy. Usually when an author tries to have a hero come across as both slightly shady and charming, it doesn't always work. The result is more like smarmy with a touch of "this character isn't worth my time," but there's something about Jett. I think having a girl BFF has him a little bit self-aware and he also doesn’t take himself too seriously. His pursuit of the nerdy girl in his class is both amusing and adorable.
ALL IT TAKES by Kristen Proby has the kind of sweet hero I normally prefer to read about. Quinn and Sienna are both lawyers and forced to work together to solve a legal mystery. In ALL IT TAKES, the hero pursues the heroine and family is a huge theme. Sienna is a strong, yet flawed heroine and she needs time to sort out her family issues and her feelings about Quinn's wealth. The romantic banter and evolving relationship between Sienna and Quinn makes ALL IT TAKES fun to read.
I've always said that Marie Harte writes fantastic stories with heroes who are hunks with plenty of heart. In DELIVERED WITH A KISS, Smith Ramsey proves he is not the hard case dude that everybody thinks he is. Smith meets Erin when she is at a crossroads in life and offers her a helping hand. I long for stories like this with a hero who has a rough exterior, but a heart of gold buried deep down. This couple have a snappy banter and provide emotional support when they need it. This book is also ridiculously hot.
RAY by Jennifer Ashley has a sweet and sexy cowboy hero who befriends a woman who's new to town and trying to launch a business. Like Marie Harte, Jennifer Ashley writes some of my favorite heroes. In RAY, there's a genuine friendship that develops between Ray and Drew, in addition to the physical attraction. Ray is a friend and support system when Drew needs one the most. I hate pushy heroes with a phony charm and Ray is the antithesis of that type of guy. The characters in this book are all multidimensional and it's a phenomenal mix of great storytelling, substance, and sexiness. Like Stephanie Laurens, Jennifer Ashley also writes some of my favorite heroines - very real, intelligent, and pragmatic.
Victoria Davies first grabbed my attention after I read her novella SEDUCING THE DEMON HUNTRESS. In BETRAYING THE BILLIONAIRE, Victoria Davies captures that exquisite sexual tension that not every author can express so well. This story has the "pretend romance turned real" trope as well as some sister swapping that the hero is unaware of. Holly Abbott is far from being a manipulative seductress bent on bad intentions, but her sisterly devotion has her doing things she wouldn't normally do. Holly plays the part of romancing billionaire Julian Worth while pretending to be her sister. Things, predictably, get out of hand when both Holly and Julian start to care for each other deeply. I love it!
FLASHED by Zoey Castile is like a modern-day fairytale and fabulous. Patrick Halloran had a wild background of fame and fast living until an accident left him scarred. Now Patrick's a recluse and Lena is a college student working as his housekeeper. Lena is no pushover and she lights a fire under Patrick that gets him interacting more with those around him. This book is full of passionate encounters, but the initial ones are very inventive because of Patrick's hang-ups.
Historical Romance Picks
A CONQUEST IMPOSSIBLE TO RESIST by Stephanie Laurens
IT'S GETTING SCOT IN HERE by Suzanne Enoch
A MACKENZIE CLAN CHRISTMAS by Jennifer Ashley
SOMEONE TO REMEMBER by Mary Balogh
THE RELUCTANT DUCHESS by Jane Goodger
I love historical romance, but I've gotten pickier over the years. I always enjoy character-driven stories and all the ones I've picked as my favorites for the year certainly qualify. Not only are these books my favorite historical romances of the year, but I've been a fan of most of these authors for years. There are many reasons I love Stephanie Laurens' Cynster books, but these books often include the kind of confident and intelligent women that I crave in a story, and A CONQUEST IMPOSSIBLE TO RESIST is no different. Deaglan Fitzgerald and Prudence Cynster both appreciate family and are horse enthusiasts. Prudence's intelligence and determination are things that make her irresistible to Deaglan and he respects her all the more for those qualities. This is another sublime mix of romance and mystery by Stephanie Laurens, and a romance between two people who are perfectly matched.
IT’S GETTING SCOT IN HERE by Suzanne Enoch and A MACKENZIE CLAN CHRISTMAS by Jennifer Ashley are both historical romances with Scottish heroes and both by authors whose books I adore, but both are very different stories about family. The Ashley book contains two Christmas-themed stories and the newest of which is "A Mackenzie Yuletide." The Mackenzies are a quirky bunch who love hard and will do anything for the people they care about. This story is full of such rich imagery that, for me, it played out like a film I was watching. The Mackenzie clan all pull together to solve a mystery, even as they approach the problem from different angles.
In IT'S GETTING SCOT IN HERE, the MacTaggert brothers have a bit of a chip on their shoulders because of the way their parents' tumultuous relationship has left their financial futures in a precarious position. Niall never expected to find love in England, and especially not with a woman his brother was decreed to marry, but he is flummoxed by love. Niall is a wonderful hero - strong, sweet, sexy, and treats the heroine with consideration, respect, and caring. Mary Balogh is perhaps my favorite author of historical romance. In a Mary Balogh story, the characters are spectacularly multifaceted, the storytelling is to die for, and the characters' behavior never seems contrived or leave you feeling as though something just doesn't ring true.
In SOMEONE TO REMEMBER, Mary Balogh tells a engrossing "second chance at love" story between two middle-aged characters that is poignant and full of hope and romantic promise. I live for and revel in all the traditional trappings of a dark and delectable gothic romance.
THE RELUCTANT DUCHESS by Jane Goodger is exactly that type of book. It has it all: marriage by proxy, a forbidding estate, a hero hidden in the shadows, a dastardly villain you ache to see get what's coming to him, and a plucky heroine who will set things right. One thing I liked about THE RELUCTANT DUCHESS is the way Jane Goodger has the hero and heroine interact and build their relationship bit by bit. Although the hero has financial power and social status, he is in many ways just as vulnerable as the heroine. At some point, it becomes an "us against the world" story. Even with all the advantages Oliver Sterling has because he's a duke, he has been manipulated for much of his life, and he has a level of uncertainty about his life that helps him connect with Rebecca.
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