Janine’s Best of 2014
This was a very good reading year for me. Although I didn’t read that many books – only fifty or sixty at a guess—the percentage of books I enjoyed was high. Due to conflict of interest this list excludes some books I enjoyed, but combining my four favorite romances with my four favorite non-romances of 2014 made it very easy to come up with eight terrific books. Here they are, listed in alphabetical order by author:
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (My review)
This fantasy novel isn’t a romance, though it does have a small romantic subplot that ends with all signs pointing to a happy resolution. It’s the coming of age and coming into power story of a despised half-goblin who ascends to an elvish throne unprepared for his new position.
The intricate development of the steampunk-ish, Asian-influenced world is both labyrinthine and enchanting, and many of the characters are endearing. Also woven through the novel is a humanist sensibility. How Maia familiarizes himself with court life, confronts his enemies, makes alliances, and grows into a good emperor—kind to others and, hardest of all, to himself– makes for a marvelous journey. A-.
Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews (My review)
If The Goblin Emperor was the book I loved most this year, Burn for Me, the first book in a new, same couple Urban Fantasy series with a strong romantic element, was the most exhilarating reading experience of my year.
Set in a world where the rich and powerful wield magic, it too was a coming into power story; in this case, for its brave and determined heroine. Nevada Baylor is a detective thrown into a case over her head, who must partner with the fearsomely powerful “Mad” Rogan, a man she doesn’t trust but can’t help falling for.
Nevada and her family were wonderful, distinct and vivid characters, and while I had some doubts about Rogan, that he’s utterly fascinating to read about isn’t in question. The plot was a roller coaster, but what I loved most of all was that Nevada and Rogan’s partnership was a full one, with each learning from the other and growing as a result. B+.
The Hook Up by Kristen Callihan (Jane’s review)
Of all the New Adult books I’ve tried (admittedly, only a handful) this was the first to fully work for me. At first it engaged me with the sexytimes. Later it engaged me with the football player Drew’s pursuit of the gun shy, reluctant to commit Anna. Their relationship begins as a sex only, no emotional intimacy allowed affair, but for all that, there was a gratifying amount of courtship in this book.
The book made me feel I was back on a college campus, and just when I thought the hero was too mature and much too perfect, especially for his age, he had a meltdown that showed that deep down he was young and not entirely secure. I was glad of that and glad the book ended with the couple recognizing their need to work hard at their relationship, because it added a coming of age element I really appreciated to this young couple’s story. I closed the novel grateful for the time I spent watching Drew and Anna grow. B.
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (My review)
This sequel to Leckie’s much-lauded science fiction debut, Ancillary Justice, wasn’t what I expected. This book zoomed in close up on one system of the galaxy-spanning Radchaai empire and was perhaps more accessible than its predecessor, but it also placed its protagonist, Breq, on murkier moral ground.
Now serving as fleet commander in her onetime enemy’s military, Breq arrives on Athoek station with a strong desire to at least attempt to make amends to the sister of the officer she once loved and killed. Also along for the ride is Tisarwat, a young lieutenant acting very oddly—rather like the ancillaries Breq inhabited when she herself was a spaceship.
No romance here, but Breq’s complete dedication to righting what wrongs are in her power to right is very much in evidence—as are wrongs aplenty. With brilliant, detailed worldbuilding, a complex and fascinating protagonist, a mystery to solve and the fate of an empire hanging in the balance, this series continues to impress me. B+/A-.
Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner (My review)
Sweet Disorder was my first Rose Lerner though I’ve since read her debut, In for a Penny. Like Willaful, I prefer this book, a Regency era historical romance set in the town of Lively St. Lemeston.
Because of the town charter’s rules, Phoebe can bestow the right to vote on the man she marries. Nick is the brother of her party’s candidate, and he tries to persuade her to marry a baker who will cast a vote for his brother, something Phoebe considers doing to conceal her younger sister’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
There was so much I loved about this book, from its political (vote canvassing!) aspect, the quirky secondary characters, denizens of Lively St. Lemeston, to the sense of community, the smart writing, the plus-sized heroine and the hero who is a younger son and never inherits a title.
What appealed to me most of all to the way the theme of disorder expressed itself in the main characters’ forbidden attraction to one another. Nick and Phoebe’s need to claim what they wanted – each other—rather than what social order required of them, made their passion for each defiant, necessary and brave. A-.
The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin (Group review by Sunita, Jayne and Willaful)
One of my favorite books of last year was Lin’s The Lotus Palace, so I was eager to read The Jade Temptress, and it did not disappoint. Set in Tang Dynasty China, The Jade Temptress begins with a murder—that of General Deng, whose headless body is discovered by the famed courtesan Mingyu. To protect herself from being held responsible for the death of her “protector,” Mingyu contacts Constable Wu Kaifeng. The two work together to solve the mystery of Deng’s murder, and they gradually fall in love.
One of the things I appreciate about Jeannie Lin’s historical romances is their sense of place and milieu. The worlds of the Pinkang Li’s pleasure district comes to life, as does Kaifeng’s investigative work. The novel is part police procedural, part romance, and set in Ninth century China. It’s hard to find something more fresh than that in historical romance.
The other thing I love about Lin’s romances is how well-matched her couples are, despite their differences. Kaifeng is as solid and straightforward as Mingyu is mercurial and mysterious, yet they fit together like two halves of the same whole. Which is not to say they aren’t fully embodied as separate, independent beings. A scene in which Mingyu must choose between her gilded cage and all its luxuries and freedom with Kaifeng, whose life is simpler, is still vivid in my mind the better part of a year after reading it. Their HEA, when it comes, is utterly lovely. B+.
The Duke of Dark Desires by Miranda Neville (My joint review with Rose to come soon)
Of all the authors I read, Miranda Neville may be the most consistently satisfying. Eight novels and one novella into her oeuvre, I’ve only been disappointed once. The Duke of Dark Desires is one of her best, and quite possibly my favorite of all her books.
The novel begins with the arrival of “Jane Grey” in England a decade or so after the death of her family during the French Revolution. Jane seeks revenge on a Mr. Fortescue whom she believed betrayed her father’s trust, leading to her family’s arrest. Believing Julian to be the duke to whom Mr. Fortescue was related, Jane takes a position as governess to his half sisters, little realizing Julian is the man her father spoke of. Julian, meanwhile, seeks to seduce Jane, unaware that she is a survivor of the tragedy that has haunted his conscience for a decade.
How Jane made it through the revolution and the loss of her family at age fifteen is a harrowing tale, but she is a true survivor, a heroine to admire. Through knowing her, Julian comes to appreciate what family means, as well as Jane’s immense courage. This novel was darker than Neville’s books usually get, but not without an occasional light touch. A beautiful and moving novel. B+/A-.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (My review)
This YA novel, a retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” set in the Jazz Age, is no fantasy, but a story about the bonds of sisterhood, with its fierce devotion and fierce conflicts.
Jo Hamilton is the eldest of twelve sisters kept hidden from the world by their oppressive father. Dancing is the girls’ only outlet, and to keep Lou, the sister Jo is closest to both in age and in other ways, from bolting, Jo suggests sneaking out of their gilded cage one night. This act of defiance becomes the girls’ one freedom, stolen at night when their father and the servants sleep.
But to keep their father from learning the truth, Jo must pay a heavy price—that of earning her sisters’ resentment for returning them home by daybreak. When their regular haunt, the Kingfisher Club, is raided by the police, and rumors of twelve wild girls who dance the night away reach their father’s ears, things begin get desperate for the girls.
How Jo protects them, or fails to protect them is the tale told in The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. With vivid characterizations, spare yet poetic prose, and a poignant yet perfect resolution to the story, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is well worth the attention of any fan of fairytale retellings. B/B+.
I’m listening to The Girls at the Kingfisher Club right now. Not a great audiobook — I dislike the way the dialogue is voiced — but an amazing story.
@willaful: I’m so glad you are enjoying the story even if the narrator’s performance isn’t all you’d hope for. The book was quite good–I hope more readers try it!
Loved the protagonist of the Goblin Emperor so much. I’m usually not one for cutesy look how happy everyone is epilogues, but I really wanted something good for him. He’d been treated so cruelly that I wanted to see him happy with a wife who was a real partner so he wouldn’t be lonely anymore. It was definitely hinted at, but (unlike my usual preferences) I would have liked a few more hearts and bows.
Also loved Ancillary Sword. I put off reading it because I’d been so blown away by the first book that I thought my expectations would be too high for the second. I wound up really enjoying it- maybe even more than the first.
I’ve only read four of these, but all four would make my personal Best Reads list as well.
Obviously I need to look for the rest of them!
@JewelCourt: Maia was wonderful, wasn’t he? I wanted more romance for him too, but his ending was happy enough to satisfy me. I read the book three times and I my second read convinced me they’d be very happy together. Ceredin’s birthday gift to him and her desire to run his enemies through were very persuasive in that regard. Nonetheless, the romance reader in me still feels the perfect ending would have been to have his personal guards leave the room to give him privacy on the wedding night. I wish we’d gotten such a scene.
Ancillary Sword was terrific too. I didn’t love it quite as much as Ancillary Justice but how many books are as good as Ancillary Justice? I thought it was a worthy sequel and I am really looking forward to book three.
@hapax: Which four? And do you have a personal best reads list up somewhere? I’d love to see what else you enjoyed this year.
I went for it and just bought two print versions of Ancillary Justice (which I’ve never read) and one kindle version. I’m going to give the print versions to my Dad and sister for Christmas- the Kindle is for me. I’m hoping I can talk them into book clubing it together with me in January. I’ve never done that before, but I think it’s a book that all three of us would like. It’ll be fun. :)
@Michele Mills: I hope you like it! I found it very satisfying but it’s serious SF and it demands concentration and thought.
Hmm… I’m going to have to try Miranda Neville. Is it okay to start with this one or one of her earlier books?
I have some of the others in my TBR and really need to make a dent in that pile before acquiring more books (but xmas sales are always so attractive!).
@autonomous: I think it’s okay either way, but it’s hard to be 100% sure because I’m anal about reading series in order! This is the last in her current series but it’s also one of her best; see my dilemma? Maybe other Miranda Neville fans can weigh in.
Which ones do you have TBR?
I’m utterly with you one the Neville and Lin books, which means I need to try the others on the list I haven’t!!!
I think you could read TDoDD on its own, but you’d lose the build up over the series. Julian has been my favorite character in this current series since he stepped onto the stage in the first book. I’m not sure how much I’d like him or be rooting for him if I missed all that background.
@Isobel Carr: I hope you enjoy any others you try. That’s a good point about TDoDD. Though I wasn’t such a Julian fan until this book, I think the build up helped us see one side of him while TDoDD desire showed another, and that contrast gave him added depth.
@autonomous: If you want to start at the beginning of one of Neville’s series, try The Wild Marquis or The Importance of Being Wicked.
Great list, which means I should look at those I haven’t read and expand my horizons.
@Darlynne: Thank you! I hope you enjoy them.
Great list! The Hook Up is making my best of 2014 list I’m working on right now for my blog. Sweet Disorder is on my TBR, will have to look at the other books too.
@Melinda: Glad to hear you enjoyed The Hook Up. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked it up since I had not read Callihan before, but I had a really good time reading it. I hope you like Sweet Disorder.
I’m so happy to see that The Hook Up made your list! I thought it was a great book, albeit a bit overly long and somewhat inconsistent, but I liked that it gave both leads the opportunity to shine and break down, and that even with all the sex (the first half read like Erotic Rom and the second half like a Contemporary Rom) there were lots of character and relationship development and lovely dialogue and banter. And since I’ve been interested in NA since it first became popular a couple of years ago, I’m glad to see that the books that take advantage of what the sub-genre/category has to offer, are getting some recognition.
I also loved The Jade Temptress, although my favorite Lin of the year was Gunpowder Alchemy, which I know you didn’t love as much as I did.
I’m off to get some books!
Yes to all this. It wasn’t a perfect book but it was very memorable, and it made me want to dip my toe a bit deeper into the New Adult waters. I’m thinking of trying one of Sarina Bowen’s books next, since Jane and others have raved about them.
Re. Gunpowder Alchemy— yeah, we disagree there. Though there were things I liked about it, I wish I’d loved it as much as you did. My favorite Lin of the year was actually The Lotus Palace, a 2013 release that I read in early 2014. But of her 2014 releases, The Jade Temptress was my favorite. I’m glad you enjoyed it too!
The Hook Up is on my list as well. And I really must get to The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Justice, both of which are on the TBR, as is the Jeannie Lin. Pretty sure I have some Miranda Neville books in the TBR of Dooooom too…
Your Kobo links to the books aren’t working. I want to give you my Affiliate money!
I read and loved the first four books on your list and I’ve been meaning to try the rest. A few other faves of mine in 2015 have been the final book in Nora Sakavic’s All For The Game series, ‘All The King’s Men’. It’s a crazy M/M YA contemporary athletes story. Transcendence by Shay Savage. Despite the P2P tag and the historic inaccuracies I was hooked in by the unusual protagonist, POV and setting, and the great ending. There have been several other books released in series I’ve been following, Ben Aaronovitch’s ‘Ben Grant’ series and K.J. Charles ‘Charm Of Magpies’ series come to mind. Loved her historical ‘Think Of England’ too. Joe Abercrombie’s ‘First Law’ series was recommended to me and it totally blew me away. Plus a couple of new series that are promising, Devon Monk’s ‘House Immortal’ and Kelley Armstrong’s ‘Cainsville’ series. So many good books this year. I could go on for pages. Thanks Authors!
Your review of “The Goblin Emperor” made me go download a sample immediately. I went back and bought the book before I’d finished the sample. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a fantasy novel that much, so thank you for helping me discover it.
Your review made me try “Ancillary justice” Janine, I did not enjoy it quite as much as you did but it was definitely a good reading experience for me, so thank you. I bought “Goblin emperror” on the strength of your review too, but have not read it yet. And “Jade temptress” is on my Best of list as well, so thank you one more time :).
@Taffygrrl: Thanks, we’re looking into it!
@Mandy: Thanks for the recs. I’ve enjoyed the Ben Aaronovitch series a lot in the past but thought this year’s entry was weaker than earlier ones. Still, I’ll probably read Foxglove Summer when it’s released here in the US.
@Caro: Thank you! I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it too. I actually read it three times this year (the third time was with my husband, so as to share it with him– but he didn’t love it as much as I did).
@Sirius: Thanks for letting me know that. Do you plan to go on to Ancillary Sword? I didn’t love it quite as much as Justice but there are a lot of readers who prefer it, actually.
I hope you enjoy The Goblin Emperor.The Jade Temptress has made a lot of our lists this year, deservedly so.
Great, varied list, Janine! I totally agree on the Lin, of course, and while I haven’t read this Neville book, I have a number from this series in my TBR. I really liked the first one when I read it a while back.
I DNF’d Ancillary Justice, not for any particular reason except I didn’t find it all that compelling or innovative (aside from the gender pronoun thing, which didn’t seem to go anywhere once I got used to it). I put it aside one day and never went back. 2015 looks like the year where I’ll finally read an Andrews book, so I’m glad it won such high marks from you.
@Sunita: I have liked the whole Neville series but The Duke of Dark Desires is my favorite of them. Part of that may be because it was darker and more emotional than her books usually get, and also because it’s particularly resonant for me for personal reasons, so I don’t know if you’ll feel similarly, but I hope you like it.
What I found most innovative about Ancillary Justice was that Breq was both a single person and, in her past, multiple people (as well as a ship AI). The use of multiple viewpoints in first person, when it first appeared, in that flashback scene where she cuts back between one first person POV and another, and all of them are described as “I,” took my breath away. I have since heard that it has been done before in SF, though, so it wasn’t as innovative as it seemed to me.
@Sunita: I forgot to add— I enjoy Andrews tremendously. I don’t know if she’ll be your cuppa but I’ll be curious to hear what you think, regardless.
@Janine: That’s probably part of it for me. I’ve been reading Iain M. Banks’ Culture series and they have sentient ships and a version of multiple entities. I didn’t want the Culture version to affect my reading of AJ, so I waited a while, but it wasn’t long enough. I’ve also found myself somewhat impatient with the imperialist/colonialist depictions in so much of SF & romance, so that might also have made a difference. I do want to give it another chance, but I’ll probably wait until I can approach it with fewer preconceptions. My list of this year’s memorable reads has a number of books that I DNF’d at one point or another and then came back to.
@Sunita: I haven’t read the Banks books but I’ve heard that comparison made before and I should probably read them. Re. the depiction of colonialism in the Leckie books. If you do end up reading on, I’d be especially interested to know what you think of how she handles it in book two. I had some ambivalence about the way it was portrayed there, but other readers whose opinion I respect loved it.
If you want to give Sarina Bowen a try, the second in her series, The Year We Hid Away, is currently $0.99 at Amazon. I loved the whole series, but this one was my favorite. Also, the novella in the series, Blonde Date, is free. It’s a good introduction to her style. She manages to have her characters deal with serious issues, but does it without the over-the-top angst and misunderstandings that NA is infamous for. I think it would be okay to read the novella out of order.
@JenM: Thank you. I picked up The Year We Hid Away, but since I already had The Year We Fell Down from before that, I think I’ll start at the beginning.