I struggled to come up with my list this year, and that is my excuse for being pathetically late (is it still 2012?). A few books went on automatically as soon as I read them, while others took more agonizing over. Slightly more than half are by authors I’ve read and admired in the past, but the rest are new to me. Looking over the final list, I gave special consideration to books that were unusual or pushed against genre conventions. But I also enjoyed stories that adhered to the standard romance framework and executed it really well.
The list is in alphabetical order by (lead) author’s last name.
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (review to come). The latest installment in the Vorkosigan series, this is Ivan’s story. It’s been ages since I last read a Miles book, but I was immediately immersed in the world. Bujold makes Ivan competent and hero-ish without altering his character from the previous books, and even though I’d forgotten a lot about the Vorkosigan universe I was rarely lost. It speaks volumes for Bujold’s skill that I think a newbie could start here and still get a great deal of pleasure from reading it. And for Miles veterans, it’s wonderful to see Ivan finally get center stage, with enjoyable supporting turns from the rest of the cast.
Lean on Me by HelenKay Dimon (review here). Generally I’m not a fan of small-town family series, but I followed Dimon here from her Romantic Suspense categories and she totally won me over. The heroine is a driven, ambitious, solitary mountain climber who has to find a new profession, and the hero is a high-school quarterback star turned small-town businessman. It’s a an excellent example of a well-known setup being given new life through skillful execution and judiciously applied twists to the formula.
The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand (review here). I read this two weeks after returning from a Paris vacation and felt as if I right there again. The heroine can be a bit annoying, but the hero is scrumptious: he’s confident to the point of arrogance about his gifts, but he also recognizes his limitations and others’ strengths. The romance is terrific and the patisserie setting will make you head for the kitchen even if you’ve just finished a meal.
One Starlight Night by Carolyn Jewel (novella in Midnight Scandals anthology, review here). I don’t know why readers don’t talk about Jewel the way they talk about Thomas, Duran, Milan, and other authors whose writing style is beloved by so many. Jewel is one of the best writers of historical romance, in my opinion; her prose creates a hypnotic, seductive world in which anything can happen. She writes stories that resonate for readers today without doing violence to the historical record and without turning her 19th-century characters into visitors from the 21st century. The romance in this novella is intense and gripping, and while the context and backstory are sketched rather than spelled out, I was so caught up that I barely noticed.
Irregulars by Nicole Kimberling, Josh Lanyon, Astrida Amara, and Ginn Hale (review to come). I’m reading less m/m this year, but this book would stand out in any year, among books from any genre. The four novellas can be read independently, but you wouldn’t want to because the way they are linked is so ingenious. Each story reflects the style and sensibility of the author who wrote it while at the same time adding aspects that aren’t in the authors’ solo-authored works, and together they create a cohesive, fascinating world. This is a book that rewards careful reading and can be reread more than once.
Dark Soul series by Aleksandr Voinov (reviews here, here, and here). Part 1 starts out looking like a skillfully executed but predictable mobster m/m story and then becomes much, much more. There’s BDSM, gender-fluidity, happy married heterosexuals, mayhem and violence, and that’s just in the first half of the series. The characters are all complex and nuanced, and Voinov never takes the obvious path. The later installments are weighed down by the complexity of the interlocking individual stories and there are a few too many important characters, but the twists and turns keep coming, right up to the surprisingly optimistic ending.
The Girl With the Cat Tattoo by Theresa Weir (review here). A poignant, bittersweet, but ultimate uplifting novella narrated by a very endearing cat. I swore I would never read cat books but not only did I read it, I loved it. Max is most definitely a cat, with no superpowers other than the ability to narrate this story. Through his eyes we see his human, Melody, and her attempt to build a life as a young widow. The book has the dark themes that mark other books by Weir, but it is also witty and humorous, and there is most definitely an HEA for Melody. Max, on the other hand, has just begun his adventures.