I was doing one of those "Pick Your Five Favorite" lists on Facebook a few days ago. So I thought I'd give it a try. Plus, in case you are reading (in which case many thanks and you'll get your present roundabout holiday season), but are going "I don't know if it's actually good or not" because you're not a historical romance junkie,there are short excerpts included. They're mostly first chapters, alas and alack, but since most book contests want a partial manuscript (basically the first three chapters or so), that opening is pretty crucial.
My top five romance novels (with linked excerpts):
1. Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas (2009, Bantam). Setting: Northwest Frontier of India (now Pakistan), 1897.
2. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase (1995) Setting: Paris & England, 1828. 384 pages. Google Books Excerpt
3. To Rescue a Rogue by Jo Beverley (2006). Setting: London, 1817. Excerpt
4. Shattered Rainbows by Mary Jo Putney (1996, reissued 2000). Setting: Waterloo, 1815. England, 1816. I like the first half better than the second. Chapter One
5. A Lady's Secret by Jo Beverley (2007) Setting: northern France & England, 1764. 416 pages. Excerpt
Honorable mentions: the entire Malloren series by Jo Beverley for a great family series. Thunder and Roses by Mary Jo Putney for a half-Gypsy earl hero and a Welsh schoolteacher as the heroine. There's a difference in culture, religion and social class that underlies the whole thing. I also really enjoyed Sherry Thomas' first novel, Private Arrangements, because of the 1890s setting (which I haven't read much of). The Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever by Julia Quinn was awesome, because it's not too bogged down with drama and the writing is light-hearted.