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Willaful’s Best of 2013

Willaful’s Best of 2013

My best of list surprises me, because I’m not generally a huge fan of contemporaries. But I’m all about angst, and we had some intense contemporary drama in 2013. Also, I haven’t enjoyed the direction my first love, historicals, has been going of late, although I did find four titles worth recommending. I didn’t read many paranormals this year, and those I did read weren’t anything to write home about, with one exception.

According to my records, I read or listened to 383 books so far this year, including novellas and short stories, and DNF’d 137 more. As my TBR pile grows exponentially, I have less patience for reading anything that doesn’t really grab me.

longbourn1) Longbourn by Jo Baker. Reviewed by Jayne.

“Fan fiction” at its finest, this book imagines the lives of the people who did the laundry and emptied the chamber pots for the beloved characters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It cleverly extrapolates from the events and characters of the original to create a gritty, touching, and entirely new story that expands our view of the world Austen wrote about.

This would probably be classified as a novel with strong romantic elements rather than a genre romance, but don’t let that put you off; it can also be painful reading if you love the original, but is well worth it. The writing creates a period feel without attempting to imitate Austen’s style, thank goodness.

 

Unbound-by-Cara-McKenna2) Unbound by Cara McKenna. My review.

I was raptly fascinated by this journey into the mind of an extremely fucked-up alcoholic fetishist, and the heroine’s complementary journey as a woman who’s working to reinvent herself after losing a lot of weight. The writing is wise and visceral and feels completely authentic, and the lonely setting in the highlands allows the characters a lot of time and space to get to know one another with true, profound intimacy.

 

storyguy3) The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers. Reviewed by Jayne  and Dabney.

A librarian who is starting to find her self-sufficient life lonely answers an unusual personal ad for a weekly kissing partner, and then can’t help wanting to make it more. This was a somewhat polarizing novella elsewhere in Romancelandia, though very well reviewed here; although I understand some of the other perspectives,  I fell on the “loved it” side. The original plotline and beautiful writing style grabbed me, but it also touched me deeply by reflecting my experiences and concerns as a caregiver for someone with special needs.

 

Run-to-You4) Run to You by Charlotte Stein. My review.

Would you like a little humor with that angst? I loved how this novel used the currently popular romance themes of the unawakened young woman and the mysterious billionaire and made them fun and hot instead of shopworn and icky. The first person narrative goes to the most unexpected places, using imagery that’s unique and hilarious.

 

snow-kissed5) Snow-Kissed by Laura Florand. My joint review with Sunita.

This was another book that hit me right where I live. It’s a heartbreaking story about how guilt and pain can destroy a marriage, with a tender, steadfast hero who refuses to stop fighting for the woman he loves, no matter how little she thinks she deserves it.

 

 

untamed6) Untamed by Anna Cowan. Reviewed by Dabney and Janine.

A complex, sometimes oblique historical starring an enigmatic, cross-dressing duke. This was another very polarizing story, one that was interpreted by reviewers in diametrically opposite ways; some believed it subverted gender stereotypes and others that it reinforced them. I voted for subversive and fascinating, and although I only gave it a B grade, it’s stayed so strongly in my memory that I think it belongs on the list.

 

heiress7) The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan. Reviewed by Janine and Jane.

A political hopeful is ordered to humiliate an obnoxious heiress, and is stymied by how much he likes her. As usual, Milan writes a strong, intelligent heroine in this historical romance, here coupled with a hero who can be quite… challenging. The theme of finding ways to achieve goals without losing your essential self is beautifully done, and there’s an intriguing secondary romance between a young epileptic British woman and an Indian man.

 

fangirl8) Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Reviewed by Jayne.

I didn’t love this quite as much as Rowell’s Attachments or Eleanor and Park, which means I only really really really really liked it. Rowell brought the world of fandom to life, depicting a fictional book and its fan fiction so vividly, it has sparked real life fan art and fan fiction. It’s also a terrific coming-of-age story about a twin having to navigate the world alone for the first time. I loved the strong sense of her own values that Cath had, as well as the ways in which she learned to expand her sense of self, and it’s great to read a New Adult book that reflects other kinds of college experiences and other kinds of new adults.

 

makingit9) Making it Last by Ruthie Knox. My review.

Several years and children later, the meet-cute couple from How to Misbehave (reviewed by Janine) find themselves in crisis, as Amber realizes she’s lost all sense of who she is aside from being a mother. An unexpected holiday gives her and Tony a chance to reconnect, but they’ll still have a lot of work to do to make it last. This marriage-in-jeopardy story has less angst and more everyday realism than Snow-Kissed, but feels equally insightful.

 

luckiest10) The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas. My review.

Thomas brings her usual elegant writing and sharp wit to this Victorian novel, which subverts romance conventions by having the tortured, affection-deprived hero successfully pass himself off as everyone’s idea of an Ideal Gentleman. When he meets another society fraud, their mutual recognition leads to irresistible attraction. Exquisitely tantalizing sexual tension and solid gut-wrenching made this very enjoyable.

 

coldest girlHonorable mention: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black. Reviewed by Jia.

I’m adding this as an honorable mention, not necessarily because I think it’s not as good as the other books, but because I listened to it as an audiobook. Audio provides such a different reading experience that I have trouble critiquing the actual work itself; narrative strengths and weakness can be amplified or quieted. But I was totally caught up in this young adult urban fantasy, which features a teenage girl protagonist who has to get very tough very quickly, while trying to hold on to her humanity. The worldbuilding mixes traditional vampiric lore with some entirely original and well thought-out elements.

cover1ETA: I left Ruthie Knox’s novella Big Boy off the list, not realizing it had been reviewed by Sunita as part of an anthology. I don’t have the time or energy to write about it now, especially since it’s been so long since I read it, but everyone who loved The Story Guy should try this one too.

Jane’s Best of 2013

Jane’s Best of 2013

Every year we post our Best of the Year book lists. Reading is such a subjective thing so no doubt these lists have a number of books readers won’t agree with. The lists are not only flawed by the bias of the people creating the lists, but also by the books we haven’t read. There are so many I’ve bought based on other’s recommendations but just have not gotten around to reading.  I’ve learned that the purpose of these lists are two fold — to help readers find books they may have missed and to generate discussion.

When I created my list, I went through all the books I reviewed. Some of the books that I gave Bs to I scarcely remembered so those went off the list. Two of the top spots went to non contemporaries even though my list is weighted toward those. Fair or not, extensive and complicated worldbuilding sells me more than anything.

Finally, there is only one historical on the list.  After about the midway point of this year, I gave up reading historicals altogether.  They no longer transport me and I don’t know if it is because of the stale storylines or the language or the characters. I hope that a new year will give me a new perspective on historicals.

Last Hour of Gann R Lee Smith1) Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith.  This is the only book I gave an A to this past year. I felt that despite some of the issues with the book, it was well constructed and it offered the type of story I hadn’t read in a long time. At 400,000+ words, it was an epic story with amazing world building.  As a reader who eschews books of faith, that this one stuck with me is remarkable. The zealot and the atheist fell in love and changed each other’s world view.  While some may find this book too demeaning for women, I actually view it as one of the more feminist book’s I’ve read. The entire patriarchal structure of the Gann world is changed because one woman triumphs over her oppressors and convinces her loved one to live on.  Amber is a survivor like none either and Meoraq was her equal.



the-winning-season2)  The Winning Season by Alison Packard.  There was so much to love about this book from the tall, confident heroine to the journey of the hero.  I’m a huge fan of sports romances and often the sports aspects let me down because either sports is misused because the author doesn’t know jack about it or because its not well baked into the storyline.  In The Winning Season, you can’t separate the sport setting from the story, it’s that integral. When the story first starts, its hard to believe that you can forgive a hero who tells the heroine she’s too manly for him but the journey from his dark space to the loved one at the end is great. Kelly, the heroine, is multilayered. She has issues being a taller, big boned girl but she’s not overwhelmed by her body issues. She’s smart and unafraid and willing to tackle the brooding Matt.


Heart of Obsidian by Nalini Singh 3) Heart of Obsidian by Nalini Singh. I waited ten books for the answer to who was the Ghost. I posted a long thesis why I thought it was one particular character and I waited, with bated breath, for this book to deliver on a seven year promise that Singh started in Slave to Sensation.  And boy did she deliver. There were so many clues that Singh planted throughout the series that all led up to this epic conclusion. I’m amazed at the consistency of the worldbuilding and how the characters stayed true to their past depictions while still softening enough to fall in love. Bring on the Arrows!


White Balance by Ainslie Paton 4) White Balance by Ainslie Patton. This was a book that took me by surprise. It’s quiet intensity snuck up behind me and I remembered this book far after I’d finished the last page. It’s a story of grief and of friendship. Of second chances and quirks of fate. While rather long, I appreciated the meandering path because I felt so much more connected to these characters the longer I spent with them.


Reaper's Property by Joanna Wylde5) Reaper’s Property by Joanna Wylde.  In a year of motorcycle books, this is one that stands out for me and not just for the gritty realism, but I appreciated how Wylde tries to acknowledge the overt misogyny of a motorcycle club and how a woman finds her own agency while still loving a man whose occupation and life is focused on a brotherhood that almost by definition excludes women. Horse and Marie have a crazy relationship and it’s not one that I could live in but it works in this fictional setting. Even better, in a genre where the heroes do most of the rescuing it was pretty awesome to see Marie be the “hero” at the end.


Crash-into-You-mcgarry6) Crash Into You  |  Dare You To by Katie McGarry.  When I looked at the list of reviews, I couldn’t quite figure out which of the two of McGarry’s 2013 releases I liked the best.  Dare to You was different because the female protagonist butted up against the more sexually innocent male protagonist. I also felt that it was more Beth’s story whereas Crash Into You was more Isaiah’s story but the two are almost duologies because Beth and Isaiah were a couple I thought destined to be together who find their happy ever afters with someone else.  Both books have the same “flaw” in that they both rely on a fairly manipulative event at the end to bring about the climax.  But in both books, I didn’t care. I still loved them both. (P.S. if you loved McGarry’s work you owe it to yourself to check out Sabrina Elkins Stir Me Up.)


Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare7) Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare. This is the only historical in a sea of contemporaries and the thing that stands out most for me is the sparkling wit of the dialogue and the amazing heroine Pauline. In fact when I reviewed this book, I said that the only question was whether the Duke was worthy of Pauline and thankfully he was. Pauline cared for her sister but wasn’t a martyr for her family. She was a practical romantic as well. In some ways, Pauline is a little Mary Poppins-ish (practically perfect in every way) but the manner in which Dare writes the character makes her deliciously delightful, like Mary herself.


Fading by E.K. Blair8) Fading by E.K. Blair.  I read a lot of indie books this year. I might have read more indie than traditionally published books and a LOT of indie books use the assaulted / raped heroine as the basis for their angst. It’s so overused that it’s almost comedic in a sad way. But Blair’s treatment of the subject is serious and thoughtful. The rape of the heroine isn’t used just as device to create conflict; instead the recovery is at the very center of the book, particularly when the heroine tries to love someone again. It’s not a perfectly written book and the detached voice in which it is told was hard to embrace at first, but it’s a book I remember still today.


Hotter Than Ever9) Hotter Than Ever by Elle Kennedy. I don’t think funny ever gets enough credit but it’s just as hard to make someone laugh as it is to make someone cry–maybe harder. Kennedy has an effortless way to pull off hilarious situations. Her strengths include crude, funny banter between her SEALS, amazingly hot and joyful sex between the characters, and believable happy ever afters set against a large cast. This story is a menage between two men and a women who struggle with not only falling in love together but convincing their friends and families that this relationship is right for the three of them.


Here Without You Webber10) Here Without You by Tammara Webber.  In this last book of the Between the Lines series, Webber explores the happy ever after between average college student Dori and her famous actor boyfriend Reid. Throw in a secret baby with an ex and it seems like a junior Harlequin Presents.  But where other authors would villainize the ex, Webber makes you care for Brooke and yes, even cheer her on. This isn’t a love triangle, though, but three people learning how to trust each other and placing a small child’s needs before their own.  The child only makes Dori and Reid’s bonds stronger and the child turns Brooke from girl into woman.


Honorable mention

Uses for Boys Erica Lorraine Scheidt Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt. This book is not a romance but a haunting Young Adult novel about a young girl, ignored by her mother and abandoned by her biological father, who desperately wants the love of her mother. Her mother is too busy chasing after the next man to pay attention and at the precocious age of thirteen the girl learns that boys will pay attention to her in exchange for sexual favors. In those stolen moments on the way to school on the bus or the back hallways at school, Anna thinks she finds a replacement but those feelings are illusory. All too soon the girls are shunning her and boys are treating her poorly but still Anna, like her mother, chases that elusive flame of love in the arms of the opposite sex. In the end, the great romance you want to see is the one Anna seeks the most – the love of her mother or a mother figure. You don’t get that as a reader because it’s not realistic, but I think the conclusion is just as satisfactory.