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Best of 2012

Sunita’s Top Reads of 2012

Sunita’s Top Reads of 2012

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.

 

Jennie’s Top Ten of 2012

Jennie’s Top Ten of 2012

A Gentleman Undone, Cecilia Grant, A
Reviews by Dabney here and Janet here. Sublime, gorgeous tale of an honorable but emotionally scarred soldier and an even more scarred ex-prostitute who is another man’s mistress. I love Grant’s characterization, her prose and the way her stories unfold.

A Lady Awakened, Cecilia Grant, A
Review by Jane. I knew this book was special from the opening pages (actually, I’d have known even before if I better trusted the buzz I’d heard; and being that I’m not that plugged into the romance community, you must know the buzz was loud). Grant gained instant auto-buy status from me.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, A
Review by Dabney. I wasn’t going to include this since it’s most definitely *not* a romance (if anything, it will put one off of marital love for life), but I saw that Dabney had included it in her top ten list, and I figured if it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me as well. I don’t read thrillers, but Gone Girl gave me a bit of an idea of what it’s like to sink into a really thrilling thriller – “page turner” is a cliche, but it applies here. I know some people didn’t like the ending, but it worked for me – perhaps because I have, I think, a perverse take on the heroes and villians of this novel.

On the Island, Tracy Garvis Graves, A
Review by January. Gripping, riveting and involving story – not great literature (the prose and characterization were serviceable), but super-readable. I read it in a day; it’s been years since I’ve read a book from start to finish in a single day. So I have to give it an A for that alone. I continue to realize that I have a weird attraction to (sort of) dystopian, man-against-nature themes.

Ravishing the Heiress, Sherry Thomas, A-
Jane’s review is here. I have a friend who was frustrated by this book, and I totally understand why. The hero’s blindness to the heroine’s devotion to him for pretty much the entire book was almost painful to read at times. But I read just about every frustrating page on the verge of tears; I was that emotionally invested. That doesn’t happen to me very often, and I have to commend a book that manages to tug my heartstrings so thoroughly.

Beguiling the Beauty, Sherry Thomas, B+
Jane’s review here. Clearly, I liked this a bit better than Jane did, though I agreed with her criticisms, by and large. The hero’s obsessive “love” for the heroine when he doesn’t even know her is borderline-creepy. What I liked was the homage to Judith Ivory’s Beast, and the honest and thorough depiction of what it means to be as beautiful as the heroine, Venetia, is. Beautiful heroines are a dime a dozen but I really like books that examine what it might mean for a woman to stand out in that way in society.

Tempting the Bride, Sherry Thomas, B+
Review by Kati here. This one was almost an A- for me (as was Beguiling the Beauty, come to think of it). This trilogy by Thomas is interesting to me because each of the books can be fairly criticized as pretty flawed, and I can understand, with each of them, why even a Thomas fan might not like one or another of them. In the case of this book, we have the hoary cliche of amnesia, as well as both hero and heroine who are immature and frankly unlikable at times. Yet each book in the series ended up moving me and absorbing me so much. I value that above a flaw-free book.

At Your Pleasure, Meredith Duran, B+
Dabney’s review is here. I ranked this one so highly mainly on the strength of the writing and the tight plotting. I actually found the characters, especially the hero, somewhat problematic, and I didn’t like the power imbalance between the hero and heroine. But it was romantic and absorbing, and I did believe in the HEA. As with Thomas, Duran’s prose more than makes up for elements that don’t work as well for me.

The Ugly Duchess, Eloisa James, B+
My review is here. I liked this a lot, perhaps not quite as much as When Beauty Tamed the Beast, which made my top ten list in 2011.  This is one of several romances on this list that had gender-imbalance issues that bugged me. I can’t fault a writer for writing realistically about what it meant to be a woman in 19th century England, but ultimately I think featuring themes that I don’t love does bring my grade down a little bit for these books. But The Ugly Duchess has very appealing characters and sparkling prose, so it does belong on this list.

The Importance of Being Wicked, Miranda Neville, B+
Joint review with Janine here. I was glad to have another chance to try Neville since my first experience with her was just so-so. This complex and romantic tale was a good deal better, and I’ll be looking forward to diving into the rest of her backlist.