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Janine’s Best of 2012 List

My top ten favorite books published in 2012, ranked (that part was haaaard) and described:

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Review by me. This intricately plotted YA fantasy about a young queen’s heroic determination to uncover buried truths about her father and nation was an almost flawless read. Beloved characters from Graceling return and new ones are introduced, including Saf, the truth-seeking thief whom Bitterblue falls for as she ventures into her city at night dressed as a commoner. The accumulation of clues to the mystery riveted me, the romance and friendships touched me, and themes of truth vs. lies, storytelling vs. censorship, memory vs. letting the past go, and the role that stories can play in healing from national and personal traumas gave the book resonance and richness.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant

Review by Jane. Grant’s debut historical romance used beautiful, thoughtful, and occasionally startling language to depict two complex and unusual protagonists and a living, breathing countryside setting. What begins as a bargain between a responsible, mature widow and the feckless son of a baronet to produce a fraudulent heir gradually grows into a romance that’s all the lovelier for its unlikelihood. I had a couple of very minor quibbles, but I liked the gregarious Theo and adored the standoffish Martha, loved the painfully awkward and funny sex scenes, and especially appreciated the freshness that made this novel unforgettable.

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

Review by me. The astonishing thing about Aaronovitch’s Urban Fantasy series is that my enjoyment has increased with each book, something that runs contrary to my usual reading patterns. That’s because of the loveable hero, Peter Grant, a biracial London constable with magical abilities. Peter solves paranormal mysteries through persistent legwork and ordinary bravery. In this installment he practices magic spells, discovers fake houses, chases a suspect through the London sewers and navigates a delicate relationship with his fellow constable Leslie. As usual, his narration sparkles with wit.

About Last Night by Ruthie Knox

Review by Jane. Contemporary romance is not my favorite genre so imagine my surprise when I found one I like better than most historicals. This sexy London set romance mixes up one London banker with artistic ambitions and one gun shy American assistant museum curator in a whirlwind romance that leaves them shaken and stirred. Okay, so enough with silly puns, Knox’s clever book deserves better than that. Cath is loveable in an angsty rebel-trying-to-be-wiser way and Nev is adorable in a gallant-and- amazing-beta-hero way. Watching them mess up is heartbreaking and seeing them make up is wonderful.

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Review by Jia. Spoilers for the previous book follow: Taylor’s YA fantasy, a sequel to Daughter of Smoke and Bone was written just as beautifully, with strong worldbuilding, gorgeous imagery, lovely language, compelling characters, and a plot that grabbed me by the throat and never let go. It was also a tough read, as any book dealing with genocide must be. With Karou and Akiva on opposite sides of the angel-chimera war, and Karou resurrecting chimera in monstrous bodies at Thiago’s orders, the tension generated by the story almost became too great. But there were glimmers of hope for the characters and their world, too, which I’d love to see grow in book three. Taylor’s craftsmanship is truly impressive.

A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant

Reviews by Dabney and Robin/Janet. The followup to A Lady Awakened portrayed a darker, thornier relationship. Will, a former Napoleonic Wars officer determined to earn the money to help the widow of one of his men gain her independence, is drawn to Lydia for her gambling skills – among other things. But Lydia is a courtesan bound to another man, and she is loyal to the so-called “protector” on whom her survival is dependent. Will and Lydia’s coming together is emotionally messy in the best way. Like A Lady Awakened, this book took risks that paid off from the heroine’s unabashed enjoyment of sex for its own sake to the unconventional happy ending.

Confessions from an Arranged Marriage by Miranda Neville

Review by me. It’s fitting that Neville’s Burgundy Book Club series, about a group of book collectors, closes with this romance between the bookish, politically minded Minerva Montrose and the dyslexic Marquess of Blakeney. A case of mistaken identity and a compromising position force Minerva and Blake to marry. There’s tenderness and authenticity in Neville’s portrayals. Blake fears Minerva will never love him due to the disability he hides, and Minerva initially thinks the sports-mad Blake shallow for his disinterest in reading. The marriage begins with both feeling vulnerable and unwanted, but their journey toward maturity, mutual respect and love is touching and ultimately triumphant.

The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Review by Jane. Milan’s historical romance novella sets up an amazing conflict. Serena Barton, a former governess determined to get justice from the duke who raped her, as well as recognition for their unborn child, sits on the bench in front of the duke’s residence for hours each day. Hugo Marshall, the duke’s man of affairs, must remove her from the bench, or lose the fortune he hopes to gain in the duke’s employ, a fortune that will help him attain his life’s goal of being a man of worth. How he tries to do just that – and falls in love with Serena in the process, makes for a novella that has more impact than many novels. Milan’s lucid prose is its own pleasure, and who could forget the scene with the hairpins?

The Importance of Being Wicked by Miranda Neville

Joint review by me and Jennie. This Regency era matchup between a staid and stuffy duke and a wild child widow delighted me from start to finish. Part of it was Caro, whose method of avoidance and suppressing loneliness was to throw parties for artists and other bohemians. Part of it was the unusual bohemian flavor of Caro’s world. And part of it was the way Caro sparked with Thomas, a duke who presented a very proper exterior but secretly longed to loosen up as much as Caro secretly needed stability. Thomas and Caro’s growth into a couple who could acknowledge their vulnerabilities and needs was touching, and I enjoyed the vividness, warmth and humanity of their story.

Fair Game by Patricia Briggs

Review by Jospehine. The fourth installment in Briggs’ Alpha and Omega werewolf series finds Charles and Anna in Boston, helping the FBI with a murder investigation. In the wake of an execution he carried out at his father’s behest, Charles is haunted both figuratively and literally. Anna struggles to reach him. This was not the strongest of the novels in this series, but my adoration for Charles and Anna as a couple knows few bounds, and it is especially marvelous to see Anna, a rape survivor, reclaim her strength. Briggs’ prose is as tight as always, her worldbuilding strong as ever. I love that her fey and werewolves can be scary. Oh, and did I mention that the ending is a game-changer?

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

23 Comments

  1. Ros
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 10:35:40

    I agree with a lot of these. It’s been the year when I’ve finally discovered historical romance writers that I love: Neville, Grant, Milan, also Tessa Dare and Anne Gracie.

  2. Carrie G
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 10:36:46

    I truly enjoyed Cecelia Grant’s two books. I listened to A Gentleman Undone on audio and it was marvelous. I also enjoyed About Last Night, The Governess Affair, and Fair Game.

    I admit The Alpha/Omega series isn’t my favorite. I still think the first three books of the Mercy Thompson series are the best things Briggs has written, but Fair Game was almost as good as those, and the best A/O novel yet. Anna has finally become a strong character in her own right, and Charles is given more depth.

    I’ve never read anything by Neville, but I might give her a shot based on your list.

  3. leslie
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 10:53:19

    Thanks for the great list. I am crazy in love with Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series. It’s so insanely creative, amusing and disgusting and I want more now!

  4. Brie
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 11:51:14

    I thought Ride with Me was better than ALN, although it was hard to choose between the two. A Lady Awakened and The Governess Affair are also on my list. I haven’t read the rest, but Bitterblue is next on my TBR list, and if Graceling is anything to go by, I’m sure Bitterblue would be on the list as well.

    I was looking forward to this list, and it didn’t disappoint!

  5. Janine
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 12:10:13

    @Ros: I discovered Grant, Aaronovitch and Knox this year so it’s been a year of great discoveries for me as well. Anne Gracie is not for me but I do want to give Tessa Dare another try sometime. I purchased her new novella a few days ago.

    @Carrie G: Interesting comment about the Alpha and Omega series. I’ve heard other people say that about Anna, but I’ve always felt she was strong, it’s just that she was traumatized at first. I thought betraying her pack to Bran at the beginning of Alpha and Omega took strength and courage, especially since she was ignorant of what werewolves were allowed or not allowed to do. And remember how she threatened Justin with the rolling pin? Given everything that had been done to her by him and others that took courage too.

    I’ve really enjoyed seeing Anna come into her power in Hunting Ground and Fair Game, but I actually prefer the earlier books for the way they addressed rape trauma. I loved the way Charles had to rein in his possessiveness around Anna in those books — that dynamic between them was so fascinating because it was contrary to the way alpha males are usually played in the romance genre.

    I also thought Charles was a fascinating character from the beginning because of his feelings about being Bran’s executioner. I loved the way he hated killing — so many heroes kill so easily in books — as well as his torment over the possibility of having to kill innocent people in Cry Wolf.

    I must’ve read Alpha and Omega eight or nine times and Cry Wolf is my favorite of the novels. Fair Game is my third favorite thing by Briggs though. I read and enjoyed Moon Called but got stuck in the middle of Blood Bound. I’m not that big on same protagonist series but this is changing a little so maybe I’ll try to get back into the Mercy books one of these days.

  6. Janine
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 12:27:50

    @leslie: Gosh, I adore those Aaronovitch books! They are so witty and I love the way we get London history in lots of little bits. And I love Peter. What a great character. I also love the way the mysteries are solved through hard work. And the books keep getting better! I read all three this year and Whispers Under Ground was my favorite. I hope more people try this series, it is soooo good.

    @Brie: I read About Last Night first because Jane said it was the better of Knox’s first two novels. So then afterward I read Ride with Me and liked it a lot, but not quite as much as About Last Night. The fact that I read it second might have something to do with it.

    I mean, they were both wonderful, and there was so much to love in Ride with Me — the characters, the bicycle road trip setting, the hot sauce scene, and I could go on — but I felt not every sex scene in Ride with Me was necessary, the mental lusting didn’t always work for me.

    I don’t say this in a prudish way, just I think it’s extra hard to write mental lust well. There’s a tendency for there to be a sameness to it because authors use lines like “his abs were so hot” and those same lines are in a lot of the books. I also like for every sex scene in a book to feel essential, like it is playing out the arc of the characters’ relationship.

    Plus, I thought the ending of Ride with Me was a little rushed.

    All of this doesn’t mean Ride with Me wasn’t wonderful – it was, and it was actually my #11 and came thisclsoe to making my list. I’m just explaining why it didn’t eclipse About Last Night. Plus, if I’m honest, I’ll add that I fell a little bit in love with Nev in About Last Night and that doesn’t happen to me often.

    Re. Bitterblue, it’s a very, very different novel from Graceling. If you go in expecting the same kind of book you might be disappointed. I had read Fire between them, which is also quite different from the other two, so I didn’t expect a repeat of Graceling. But Bitterblue is my favorite of the series.

  7. Mandi
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 12:45:33

    You make me want to try Cashore…

    Fair Game and About Last Night – yes yes yes! :) And Cecilia Grant. And Milan.

    Great list :)

    And now off to research Ben Aaronovitch..

  8. Readsalot81
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 13:00:01

    I absolutely loved Bitter Blue. I gave my mom Graceling and she frowned when I said I didn’t have Fire and Bitter Blue on hand. Which I then had to rectify. (But my mom’s awesome, she’ll pay for me to pick up books we both want)

    Cecilia Grant has been recommended to me by many trusted sources, so she’s in my stack of TBR books, along with Miranda Neville thank you very much. You’re not so good for my wallet Janine!

    I liked Ruthie Knox’s About Last Night, but didn’t love it. I LOVED the hero, but did not care for the heroine. However, I did enjoy the way she writes and will most likely pick up Ride with Me and that Christmas Anthology.

    Courtney Milan is a stunning writer. I have the Duchess Wars on my kindle and am saving it. I know that sounds a bit odd. lol I don’t care :) Oh, and agree wholeheartedly on The Governess Affair.

    It’s hard to go wrong with Patricia Biggs, but I will admit I’m tiring of Mercy and Anna slightly. The last Mercy books were kind of boring, and I can’t afford to buy hardcovers anymore, so I haven’t touched Fair Game yet. (Yeah, libraries I know.. but I’d like to own it, so I’m waiting)

  9. Janine
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 13:43:03

    @Mandi: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the list.

    Cahsore at her best is awesome, but if you decide to try her, I’d suggest reading Graceling before Bitterblue. I didn’t care that much for Fire though a lot of other readers loved it. I don’t think it has to be read before Bitterblue but it certainly doesn’t hurt if you do.

    Aaronovitch is a fabulous writer. So witty and as Leslie says, creative!

    @Readsalot81: @Readsalot81: Glad you enjoyed my list so much! I’m surprised I haven’t gotten tired of Charles and Anna, since I often do tire of reading about the same protagonists, but I haven’t.

  10. Keishon
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 15:03:37

    Oh, and did I mention that the ending is a game-changer?

    Everyone keeps saying that?! I will have to read Fair Game one of these days. I am a bit behind in the Alpha & Omega series. Can I skip Hunting Ground and dive right into Fair Game?

  11. Janine
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 15:11:27

    @Keishon: Hmm not sure. Anna is in a very different place with regard to her ownership of her power in Fair Game than she was in Cry Wolf and I think the events in Hunting Ground are a big part of the reason why.

  12. Carrie G
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 17:39:57

    @Janine: If you thought the rape issue is handled well, then I encourage you to go on and read the next few Mercy books, as well. Different character, different circumstance, but Briggs seems to understand the issues surrounding rape and writes sympathetically. I agree mostly with your assessment of Anna. I looked back over my notes from the books and I rated Cry Wolf and Fair Game the same, which was good. I didn’t like Hunting Ground as much, and part of that was the fact that Charles and Anna didn’t seem to communicate well in that book. But as Readsalot81 said, it’s hard to go wrong with Briggs.

    Have you read The Hob’s Bargain? Great book!

  13. Janine
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 19:09:33

    @Carrie G: I heard that about the Mercy books, and I may read them, but I don’t find her as fascinating as Charles or Anna and I generally prefer third person for most books with a romantic relationship because I love to get inside the guy’s head as well as the girl’s.

    Hunting Ground was my least fave of the Charles/Anna books as well, but when I say least fave, it’s relative to the others. I have liked every book in that series.

    I haven’t read Hob’s Bargain, or the dragon duology which has also been highly recommended to me.

  14. Carrie G
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 19:17:00

    @Janine: I prefer third person, so I totally understand that. I highly recommend The Hob’s Bargain. In some ways I think it’s my favorite book of hers. The Hob is such an interesting character and the relationship is so sweet.

  15. Janine
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 19:33:21

    @Carrie G: Thanks! I’ll keep that in mind.

  16. Jennie
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 20:03:05

    Several of these books will be on my list as well. I need to try to Milan novella; I’ve thought about getting it a few times but never pulled the trigger. I’ve been meaning to try Ruthie Knox, as well.

  17. Janine
    Dec 12, 2012 @ 20:40:46

    @Jennie: I really look forward to your list! When will we see it?

    The Milan novella is one that has stayed with me a long time and gone higher in my estimation as a result. And it’s only 99 cents, so a great value for the $.

    I know I used the word clever above to describe Knox’s book, and I think that adjective applies to her other works as well. There’s this sense of smarts to her books that I appreciate so much.

  18. Aly
    Dec 13, 2012 @ 06:19:34

    I didn’t read any of the books on your list! :O *adds to the To Be Read list*

    This year I think I only read books released in previous years. I didn’t mean to though! Now I feel like everyone’s ahead of me!

  19. Janine
    Dec 13, 2012 @ 11:21:05

    @Aly: I know that feeling (I’ve been in that position in the past), but it really is okay to read older books instead of new ones. I try to focus on newer books because I’m a reviewer and readers want to know about the new books coming out. Also, this list is of my favorite books published in 2012, not my favorite books read in 2012. That would be a different list, but there would be some overlap between them.

    I read some excellent older books this year as well, such as Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Loretta Chase’s Knaves’ Wager, but I left them off my list because they weren’t published in 2012.

    Honestly, if I weren’t a reviewer, I wouldn’t need to think about publication dates. I’d just read whatever I was in the mood to read. The most important thing is to find books we enjoy, regardless of when they were published.

  20. Carrie G
    Dec 13, 2012 @ 12:07:56

    @Aly: Don’t worry, many readers are in the same boat. I know I am. I read relatively few books this year that were actually published this year. Since I’ve only been reading romance for a few years, EVERYTHING is new to me! Of course the great part is I’m like a kid in a candy shop. So many possibilities!

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