Janine’s Favorite Books of 2015
As reading years go, 2015 was a bit unusual. I had less time to read than I have in previous years, and read less as a result. I also had a difficult time finding truly satisfying romances. Four of the books on my list are fantasy novels, while the other three novels and two novellas are romances. On the bright side, six of the books on my list are by authors I hadn’t read before, and discovering these works delighted me.
Good Time Bad Boy by Sonya Clark
Reviewed by Sunita
This lovely May-December romance between Wade Sheppard, a washed up country singer, and Daisy McNeil, a hardworking but struggling waitress / college student, was the best surprise of my reading year. Despite their different ages and backgrounds, the characters felt so right for each other. Each had their past heartaches and emotional bruises to show for them, but these felt entirely genuine: the difficulties were there, but not any manufactured angst.
Clark creates a community around the characters that also feels authentic, and Wade and Daisy’s gun shy yearning is deeply felt. Who could forget their magical first date, or their fears that his career is incompatible with her needs? The last conflict is resolved without diminishing either of the protagonists.
This book reminded me just how good a great contemporary can be. Clark’s other novels are in the paranormal genre, but I plan to read them.
Let it Shine by Alyssa Cole
This Civil Rights era set interracial / interfaith novella is a standout among this year’s historicals.
Sofronia “Sofie” Wallis and Ivan Friedman met as children, when Sofie’s mom looked after Ivan, but her death changed everything. Sofie became what her father wanted – polite and quiet. But after a pregnant girl’s violent arrest for sitting at the front of the bus, Sofie can’t remain silent. She joins a group of activists and encounters Ivan, now a boxer.
As they join in sit-ins and freedom rides, Sofie and Ivan discover the power of protests—and the power of their love. Together they stand up to their fathers’ prejudices, as well as for justice.
This novella is timely and romantic with a capital R. Sofie and Ivan’s desire and longing are palpable. Ivan was appealing despite one moment when his commitment to the cause wavers, and Sofie—well, Sofie was an absolutely wonderful heroine. The backdrop of the Civil Rights movement also came alive, and gave the novella originality and freshness.
Everything I Left Unsaid / The Truth About Him by M. O’Keefe
The first of these, a contemporary romance with elements of erotic romance, NA and romantic suspense, introduces us to Annie McKay, a survivor of domestic abuse who escaped her brutal husband. Annie is cleaning her new home, a beat up trailer in a North Carolina trailer park, when a cell phone wedged in her couch rings. On the other end is Dylan, a mysterious man with whom Annie begins a phone sex relationship.
Everything I Left Unsaid is the story of Annie’s awakening, not just sexually, but also her awakening to life itself, to the freedom to make her own choices, and to new friendships with the trailer park’s other residents, such as tough-talking Joan and surly Ben, a man Dylan has warned her against. Reading it, I was as conscious of the dangers to Annie as of the necessity of taking risks.
The book’s direct sequel, The Truth About Him, continues Annie and Dylan’s romance, but here Dylan’s viewpoint is introduced. Because the two books comprise one whole, I don’t want to spoil The Truth About Him, but it’s written with similar care and thoughtfulness.
Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch
I haven’t entirely forgiven Aaronovitch for the end of last year’s Broken Homes, but if I thought I’d find Peter Grant angsting about Leslie’s betrayal in Foxglove Summer, I was relieved that this was not the novel’s main thrust. Instead, Peter is pulled into a countryside missing persons case.
Not only was this book far more cohesive than the last, it was also tighter than all four of the previous novels. In addition to the fish-out-of-water humor and the selfless heroism Peter showed in rescuing the two missing children, this book also saw the return of Beverley Brook.
Given the big developments late in this novel, I’m curious to see where next year’s The Hanging Tree goes. But what keeps me coming back is Peter. His wit, honor and humanity make him a character worth reading about.
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
Joint review with Sunita
Set in an alternate twentieth century Paris, this fantasy novel has a plot so intricate you will have to read the full-length review for a summary. Suffice to say the novel involves fallen angels in groups called Houses, and focuses on a House called Silverspires.
Philippe, a Viet immortal of a different sort, is captured by Selene, head of Silverspires, when he maims newly Fallen Isabelle to obtain her power. There’s also Madeleine, a human who long ago escaped a massacre at House Hawthorne and was taken in to become Silverspires’ alchemist.
De Bodard’s writing is richly atmospheric, psychological, and powerful. That the POV characters are at odds with one another gives us a different perspective on each. The novel draws on western and Vietnamese mythology, and the Vietnamese sections were wonderful. I was at times frustrated with the characters’ intransigence even as a lethal being stalked them, but the writing is impressive and accomplished.
Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer
This fantasy novel is set in Eivar, a land in which poetry (songwriting) was once a means to cast spells. Then the enchantments disappeared, women were barred from the craft of poetry, and some songs were banned.
The story begins centuries later, with a murder. The stage is set for the Midsummer Masque, in which a number of characters, all of them poets, one of these, Lin, a female, are set to compete for Eivar’s highest songwriting honor, when Valanir Ocune, Eivar’s greatest seer, performs a forbidden song. In doing so he sends Lin and others on a quest to restore magic to Eivar in order to fight back the plague known as the Red Death.
With appealingly human characters, including three women who chafe at the roles their patriarchal society has assigned them, magic that is both frightening and awe-inspiring, and controlled but lyrical writing, Last Song Before Night is a hidden gem.
A Sweet Way to Freedom by Piper Huguley
Set in 1910 Georgia, this novella is the story of Missy Baxter, a small town pregnant and unmarried schoolteacher and Arlo Tucker, owner of a local place to dance and drink, and the man who fathered Missy’s child. Missy is danger of losing her position due to her pregnancy, and Arlo, believing he is cursed, is afraid to marry her.
While the story has a religious element, it feels natural and there is no proselytizing. The novella has a powerful theme of redemption and a strong sense of place and sense of community / family. When Arlo’s reasons for fearing to marry Missy finally came to light, I had to reach for a box of tissues.
Initially, I gave this novella a strong B. I liked its authenticity and Huguley’s writing. As time has gone on, though, it has risen further in my estimation. It feels true to me–true to the civil rights struggles African Americans have faced in this nation, and true to the characters and their emotional journeys, including their love.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Joint review with Sunita
Zen Cho’s first full-length novel is reminiscent of Susanna Clarke and Georgette Heyer’s work, but deals with prejudice and colonialism, as well as romance and magic. In its alternate Regency setting, Zacharias Wythe is an African adopted by white, aristocratic parents and England’s Sorcerer Royal.
Hounded by sorcerers who would see him stripped of his position, Zacharias travels to the countryside to investigate the disappearance of English magic. There he meets Prunella Gentleman, an Anglo-Indian orphan and, despite respectable women’s prohibition from practicing magic, a formidable sorcerer herself.
Prunella is ambitious, humorous and exciting, with an affecting backstory. Zacharias’ conflicted relationship to his parents is even more moving, as are his efforts for an ungrateful nation in a position he never wanted. Then there’s Mak Genggang, an elderly, scene-stealing Malayan witch. While the romance is understated, sorcery, dragons and the characters make this book delightful.