Jul 10 2014 11:30am

Justify My Love: The 12 Best ’90s Romance Novels

Paradise by Judith McNaughtThe ten best romances of the 1990s...who can possibly say?

Should I choose one book per year?

How about titles with tons of buzz for what now seems just a moment in time (The Lover by Robin Schone, Mine to Take by Dara Joy)? Or books like Katherine Sutcliffe’s Dream Fever or Judith Ivory’s The Proposition? Unlike Schone and Joy, Sutcliffe and Ivory (aka Cuevas) have reasonably sized backlists, though neither has been published in a decade.

Should all subgenres be represented? On the Western front, for instance, Lorraine Heath’s Always to Remember amazed readers with its subtle intensity, and the Only series from Elizabeth Lowell was hugely popular (my own fave is Winter Fire).

Should I choose a book from both J.D. Robb (Naked in Death) and Nora Roberts (Seaswept)? What about Amanda Quick (Rendezvous) and Jayne Ann Krentz (Trust Me)?

In the end I put on my sorting hat and let it do the choosing, the result being a list of ten twelve books that leaves off as many “bests” as it includes. My only absolutes were not to choose the same author more than once, or to let a particular subgenre overtake the entire list (which is why Devil’s Bride by Stephanie Laurens or any of three titles by Connie BrockwayAs You Desire, All Through the Night, My Dearest Enemy—do not appear). But the list is stacked with titles from authors who were/are big sellers as opposed to those lesser known (Deborah Simmons’s The Vicar’s Daughter, Diane Farr’s Fair Game, Catherine Archer’s Velvet Bond).

As for ranking the list, my poor brain simply cannot contemplate it, particularly since I’ve read just eight of the twelve and consider only three to be personal favorites. Take a look at the chart (in order of publication), read my thoughts on each title, then post your own list.


Judith McNaught Paradise 1991 Contemporary
Diana Gabaldon Outlander 1991 Time Travel
Julie Garwood The Secret  1992 Medieval
Laura Kinsale Flowers from the Storm 1992 Regency-[ish] Historical
Loretta Chase Lord of Scoundrels 1993 Regency-[ish] Historical
Nora Roberts Born in Fire 1994 Contemporary
Anne Stuart To Love a Dark Lord 1994 Georgian Historical
Lisa Kleypas Dreaming of You  1994 Regency Historical
Linda Howard Dream Man 1995 Romantic Suspense
Jennifer Crusie Anyone but You 1996 Category
Mary Jo Putney Shattered Rainbows 1996 Regency Historical
Susan E. Phillips Nobody’s Baby but Mine 1997 Contemporary








Paradise is the favorite for most lovers of Judith McNaught’s contemporaries. The storyline involves a divorced couple who years later find their way back to love. The author is perhaps best known for Whitney, My Love, but my favorite is A Kingdom of Dreams.

When it was first published, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander became a phenomenon. I can’t tell you how many women I know who read and loved it, but refused to categorize it as a romance. Probably as many as those who refused to categorize it as anything but. Jamie and Claire remain one of romance’s best loved couples, equaled only by J.D. Robb’s Roarke and Eve.

The Secret by Julie GarwoodThe Secret is my own favorite Julie Garwood medieval, beating out its biggest competition, The Bride. The history isn’t what you’d call historically accurate, but who cares when the heroine is adorable, the hero braw, and their chemistry fabulous?

More than twenty years after its release, Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm remains one of the most beloved romances of all time. I’ve never been able to finish it, but I’m told that the unusual love story is told through brilliant writing and features great emotional intensity.

For lovers of Regency-[ish] historical romances, Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is generally on the top of the list. The book is funny, sexy, and eminently readable. Those who love a perfectly matched couple could do no better.

Nora Roberts’s Born in Fire stars Margaret Mary Concannon, a tortured artist who meets her sexy but stable match in Rogan Sweeney. A true bonus? Roberts’s descriptions of Maggie making her glass art.

I’ve extolled the virtues of Anne Stuart’s books a number of times at H&H, and never considered omitting one of her 1990s titles. My biggest conundrum was deciding between 1993's A Rose at Midnight and 1994's To Love a Dark Lord. Honestly, I flipped a coin; both are list-worthy.

Dreaming of You by Lisa KleypasA romance writer with a career spanning twenty years, Lisa Kleypas captured the imaginations of myriads in Dreaming of You. The hero, a man from the gutters who made his fortune with a gambling hell, was not something you came across every day in 1994. He literally endured a test of fire with his heroine before they earned their HEA. Don’t miss its prequel, Then Came You (I actually prefer it).

1994's Dream Man marked Linda Howard’s breakthrough into the mainstream after publishing many highly regarded category reads—e.g. Duncan’s Bride, MacKenzie’s Mountain. In it a skeptical detective and a psychic try to catch a serial killer. Howard’s heroes tend to suck all the air out of the room, and Dane Hollister is no exception.

Jennifer Crusie may have been the first author to jump directly from category romance into hardcover. Perhaps Anyone But You propelled her jump. The book generated online buzz at a time when “online” was just branching out from listservs and online services like AOL, in no small part because the smart, funny, and sexy story featured what seemed like far too modern a sensibility than other Harlequins of the time.

The name Mary Jo Putney was synonymous with quality historical romance throughout the 1990s (and beyond). Shattered Rainbows is one of the books to cement that reputation, with its emotional intensity and historical depictions that definitely are not of the wallpaper variety.

Choosing which Susan Elizabeth Phillips title to include on this list was far tougher than deciding whether or not to include her. I went with SEP's Nobody’s Baby but Mine, one of her most popular, because the storyline—a brainy woman wanting the father of her child to be all brawn—is such fun.

So, this is my list. What’s yours?



Laurie Gold cannot stop reading and writing about romance—she’s been blabbing online for years. She remains a work in progress. Keep up with her on her My Obsessions tumblr blog, Goodreads (where she spends much of her time as late), follow her on Pinterest, or on Twitter @laurie_gold, where she mostly tweets about publishing news and [probably too often] politics.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Kareni
Wow, that's a tough question. I think my list would include a book or two with a strong paranormal element perhaps Jayne Ann Krentz's Amaryllis, 1996, or Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake novels.
Darlene Marshall
2. DarleneMarshall
Good list! Many of these are on my keeper shelf, and it's great to see how many of these authors are still producing quality work.
Miranda Neville
3. Miranda Neville
Great list. I've read most of them and agree. I also agree with you about Flowers from the Storm. Never got beyond 50 pages and I feel it must be my fault. I'll try again in a year or two.
Jennifer Proffitt
4. JenniferProffitt
To make a '90s reference for Flowers from the Storm:

It took me a while because while the prose is beautiful the lack of dialogue and the way the heroine speaks--with all those "thou"s--when there is dialogue, it is difficult. But it's SO worth it!
Nicole Leapheart
5. BoxyFrown
I just realized how old I am (or how terribly young I was when I wasn't supposed to be reading my mom's romance novels) because I thought, oh Jude Deveraux would be great for this list...and most of my faves were done in the mid to late 80's. Some good ones in the early 90's though! Still love that she writes about the city/aristocratic Montgomery clan and their country/highland cousins the Taggerts-depends on the era.
Laurie Gold
6. LaurieGold
I actually checked the date of A Knight in Shining Armour, which I knew was a huge, huge book for Deveraux, but it was published in 1989, though, just like Garwood's The Bride.
Miranda Neville
7. Miranda Neville
I hear you, Jennifer! I will conquer this!

I would add Patricia Gaffney's To Have and to Hold (1995 I checked). A controversial book but very powerful.
Laurie Gold
8. LaurieGold
Miranda, I considered it, but tried to pick books I'd not written about previously. About a year ago, when the Wyckerly trilogy went digital, I wrote about it here at H&H.
christina tetreault
9. christina tetreault
Some of my favorite on there. I also loved Julie Garwood's Ransom and Lynn Kurland's time travel
Carmen Pinzon
10. bungluna
Count me in the camp that DOES NOT CONSIDER "Outlander" a romance. Neither are "Gone With The Wind" nor any Anita Blake or other UF series books. Sorry, I'm a purist; my romances must have a definitive HEA, period. Strong romantic elements? Yes. Romance? No!

I would have included Sandra Hill's "Sweeter Savage Love" (1997) as a sample of a time travel parody. Funny book!

I would also have included something by Jayne Ann Krents / Amanda Quick / Jayne Castle. She was doing 'Paranormals' before they became a category of their own. I personally like "Absolutely, Positively" (1996) JAK, "Affair" (1997) AQ or "Amarillis" (1996) JC though I like the 3rd one in that trilogy the best: "Orchid" (1998).
christina tetreault
11. Sandyw
Definitely Jill Barnett's Bewitching (1994) and Wonderful (1997) and Lynn Kurland's Stardust of Yesterday (1996) and A Dance Through Time (1996).
christina tetreault
12. Clara G-K
I adored Paradise and it spawned a reading frenzy for the rest of JM's novels.

i think I may be the only person to absolutely despise Outlander :-x and have hated few books as vehemently since. It is such a personal
thing though...
christina tetreault
13. Karen H near Tampa
I also absolutely despise "Outlander!" I got it free when I got my Kindle and I only finished it because everybody said it was so good. But that was the last book of hers I'll read and I won't be watching the series either.

For the list, I otherwise agree with all of them (Fred, aka "Anyone But You" was a real favorite) except the only book I haven't read (Linda Howard's) so I'll have to see if the library has a copy.
Darlene Marshall
14. DarleneMarshall
@LaurieGold--A Knight in Shining Armor made the list for H&H top 80's romances. You can read the article here.
Lee Brewer
15. LeeB.
I'm surprised Laurie that you never finished Flowers from the Storm. Otherwise, I think it's an excellent list. I like Sandyw's choices.
christina tetreault
16. Laura Lynn
You never finished 'Flowers From the Storm"... I think you have some homework you need to finish.
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