I don’t read all that much straight romance, so instead of listing my favorite clean romance reads of 2018, I’m going to broaden it to encompass all those I can remember. Most of these are classics and historical romance, because quite frankly, it’s VERY hard to find clean contemporary romance… and it’s even harder to find clean contemporary romance that also isn’t cheesy. But a *few* modern books made the cut! Listed in order of favorites.
Gone With the Wind
Oh! Gut wrenching!!! My good friend warned me that I would grieve when it was over, and I read it anyway… and on one hand I wish I’d heeded her warning, on the other, it is such a great story that it’s worth it. The characters are incredible, and although the love story actually gets very little “screen time” for a 1000+ page novel, it’s the underpinnings for everything they do. All of the history and politics of the time are also quite relevant, so it’s educational as well. But at bottom, it’s a morality tale. Both Scarlett and Rhett are morally bankrupt, and so they do what they must do, and you watch it destroy their lives… and yet you root for them anyway, knowing that Margaret Mitchell could have written it no differently without changing them into different people.
I have hope, and choose to believe, that once Scarlett becomes a decent person (which she FINALLY does), she will have the wherewithal to turn her life around!
My rating: *****!
WOW. So very very satisfying. When I finished GWTW I absolutely had to get this one for some closure (and I read other people’s reviews to make sure I would get it… I’d have been *pissed* if this one ended sad or on a cliffhanger too!) But it didn’t.
Now, I will say early on, the characters seemed a bit clumsier than they did in Margaret Mitchell’s hands in the sense that Ripley would come right out and say things that Mitchell would show in the way the characters behaved, allowing the reader to draw the appropriate conclusions. But I was impressed with how well-researched the book was, so I either got past this, or it stopped happening so much as the book went on.
One other frustration from early on was that Scarlett’s behavior toward Rhett made me cringe with shame for her (“You idiot! You’ll never win him back that way!”) And this went on for a few hundred pages, to the point where I started to think the whole thing was going to be like a soap opera (whereas the original GWTW was an epic, and the historical setting was very important to the story.) But after one pivotal moment, all that changed, and Scarlett became the heroine we loved so much from the original book, and the one Rhett fell in love with, too. The rest of the book, from that point on, was utterly absorbing.
Down to the last 23 pages, I almost didn’t want to finish, because I didn’t see how she could possibly wrap it up happily. But she DID, and I was totally satisfied! Anyone who felt grief-stricken when GWTW was over should definitely read this, you won’t be disappointed!
My rating: *****!
Pride and Prejudice
I don’t know how many times I’ve either read or listened to or watched the film adaptation (or miniseries version of) Pride and Prejudice. I love Jane Austen, and this is her quintessential novel, the most memorable of the bunch. What is it about Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett that makes them so compelling? We all identify with Elizabeth, surely. She’s spunky and smart, self-deprecating at times, and she also so dearly loves her sister–her primary motivations are unselfish. And Mr. Darcy of course has all the worldly advantages: wealth, looks, and status. But in this story, we get to know him twice, through Lizzie’s eyes: once with her false assumptions of his pride and arrogance, and once when she looks at him instead through the softened eyes of knowing herself to be beloved. All of us want someone to fight for us, no matter how undeserving we believe ourselves to be… and this novel vicariously delivers.
My rating: *****!
I consider the Bronte sisters to be a gothic version of Jane Austen: where Austen is tongue-in-cheek and playful, the Brontes are always brooding and dark. But while gothic stories also tend to be tragic, and Jane Eyre did have some of that, I’d ultimately say this story ends happy. It’s the story of the plain, poor, orphaned governess Jane, hired to tutor the daughter of the moody and equally ugly (but wealthy) Mr. Rochester. I love the relationship between them: Mr. Rochester is in many ways an anti-hero, as he’s petty and childish, purposely creating elaborate ruses to trigger Jane’s jealousy. But he does it because he’s actually so insecure, and he’s not sure if she really loves him. It’s the only way he knows he can find out. And yet, once the couple does get together, their “happily-ever-after” is not to be… Mr. Rochester’s dark secret forces them apart. In the intervening time, Jane meets some absolutely hatable and yet utterly compelling characters, and teeters on the brink of life choices which will take her from Mr. Rochester forever. So engrossing, and the characterization is utterly brilliant.
My rating: *****!
Anne of Green Gables (First Three)
Anne of Green Gables is one of my all-time favorite classics: I practically memorize the Megan Follows film versions, and I’ve read and listened to the books many times as well. I’m only listing the first three books, though, because the love story between Anne and Gilbert wraps up at the end of “Anne of the Island.” (After that, the story frankly isn’t all that interesting, and later books in the series aren’t even about Anne anymore–they’re little anecdotes about the scrapes her kids get into.) These are very episodic, but so idyllic. I love the atmosphere of Prince Edward Island at the turn of the 19th century, when life was simpler and everybody knew their neighbors (sometimes too well.) And Anne’s struggle with her “romantic ideal” versus the very real, flesh-and-blood Gilbert who was right there waiting is so compelling.
My rating: *****!
My second favorite Jane Austen novel after Pride and Prejudice. Also set in Regency period England, this one follows Emma, a wealthy 21-year-old girl who never plans to marry herself, but keeps herself occupied by playing matchmaker to everyone in her circle. Of course, this goes horribly wrong… and like all matchmaking stories, she ends up falling in love herself. But the man she falls in love with is a bit of a surprise (if you don’t already know it’s coming)… yet he’s so, so perfect for her.
My rating: *****
Sweet Evil Series
I can’t gush enough about the Sweet Evil trilogy (which is actually four books–so, cheating on the whole “top 10” thing). The genre is essentially paranormal romance, but with a fantastically creative twist. Anna is one of the Nephilim, which the Bible refers to as the offspring of a demon and a human. But Anna is different even from other neph, because her mother was an angel, and her father a demon (both of whom had to possess human bodies in order to bear a child). She’s a “Child of the Prophecy,” as it were, destined to rid the earth of demons and offer the neph a chance at redemption… but then she meets the son of the demon of lust, Kaidan. Will she remain pure enough to accomplish her mission? Seriously, it’s AMAZING. Read my full review of Sweet Evilhere, my review of Sweet Peril and Sweet Reckoning here, and my review of Sweet Temptation, the bonus fourth book in the series, here. On the whole “clean” part: there’s almost no cussing at all in the trilogy itself, but Sweet Temptation is full of bad language and innuendos because it’s told from Kaidan’s point of view (whereas the trilogy is told from sweet Anna’s point of view.) Personally, I didn’t mind this a bit, because it was consistent with his character, and it frankly would have been off-putting if it hadn’t been there. But if you want to avoid that, just read the first three.
My overall series rating: *****
The Selection Trilogy
|These books have been described as the Hunger Games meets the Bachelor, and I can definitely see the comparison! But there’s also quite a bit of Cinderella thrown in. It’s a dystopian world, in which the Crown brings common girls to the palace for a prolonged period of time, in order to compete for the heart of Prince Maxon. Each book ends with an elimination round. But at the same time that all of this is going on, the castle is under siege and their freedom is being threatened. I’m really glad that’s part of the story too, as it creates the right environment for America to shine as a potential queen.
My series rating: **** 1/2
Sense and Sensibility
My third favorite Jane Austen novel. As you might guess from the title, this one contrasts the characters of two sisters: Eleanor is very sensible, perhaps to the exclusion of her heart, while Marianne is all passion, but little sense. Eleanor is (I think) far more sympathetic of the two. She falls in love with an earnest, simple, and (to Marianne’s way of thinking) boring man, Edward–who seems to play her false. Meanwhile, Marianne overlooks the sensible, kind (and wealthy) Colonel Brandon, instead falling passionately in love with her handsome and passionate ideal, Willoughby–who turns out to be a rake. It’s a love story, primarily, for each of the sisters. But it’s also a story of how Eleanor learns to embrace her heart, while Marianne tempers her spirit with wisdom.
My rating: **** 1/2
As mentioned with Jane Eyre, the Bronte sisters are definitely on the dark and gothic side. Villette is no different. It follows Lucy, a plain governess just like Jane Eyre (and I believe I’ve read that these characters were somewhat autobiographical, for Charlotte at least.) Lucy is in some ways like Jane: she’s also very intelligent and sympathetic, but she’s far more tormented emotionally. She’s also the sad victim of unrequited love… and it’s very clear from the beginning that Dr. John will never return her affections. There’s much more going on in the story than just Lucy’s affections, though, and it doesn’t end wholly sad–Lucy does find her match, though compared to the Adonis that is Dr. John, it’s hard to feel satisfied with a consolation prize. Read this one only if you’re in the mood for bittersweet!
My rating: **** 1/2
Such an uplifting read! Christy reminds me of Anne of Green Gables in its episodic format that carried more the feel of a life than a traditional story arc. I was fascinated by the way that the author put philosophical conversations in the character’s mouths and made them part of the plot… it was almost like the book itself was not just a book, but a vehicle to communicate her own belief system. I ordinarily don’t think that works in fiction because it feels like a device… and yet, she blended it in seamlessly here.
Christy is a 19-year old missionary schoolteacher in the rural and very impoverished Cutter Gap in 1912. While there, she falls in love with the children (much like Anne does: she too is a schoolteacher when she’s of age) and also finds herself in the middle of an unlikely love triangle, between the legalistic preacher and the widowed heathen doctor. (The 1990s Kelly Martin miniseries version of this is also really good!)
My rating: **** 1/2