Janine’s Best of 2017
I was a cranky reader on social media this year, so I was surprised to discover that like Jayne’s, my top ten list runneth over. In hindsight, I think some my crankiness was due to the difficulty I had finding satisfying reads in historical romance, traditionally my favorite genre. Please feel welcome to suggest some to me.
Here, in the chronological order in which I reviewed them, are my top eleven reads from 2017:
A Champion’s Heart by Piper Huguley
It’s 1935 and boxer Champion “Champ” Bates reunited with Delie Bledsoe in Winslow, Georgia after a years-long separation. Champ is training for a match against a white boxer, one that he hopes will establish his reputation. Delie doesn’t know that a doctor has warned him that he could go blind if he boxes again.
Champ wants to resume his romance with Delie, but Delie has hardened her heart against him. Champ doesn’t know that Neal, the son Delie had after they separated as teens and he left her with no forwarding address, is his.
But if you think this sounds like a typical secret baby story, it isn’t. It is actually a road romance such as you’ve likely never read before, at least not in the historical romance genre. Delie and her sister have taken in four abandoned children, and now Delie has been offered money to take the kids and leave Winslow on a permanent basis. Champ offers to drive the rickety bus Delie purchases to Pittsburgh, where her family lives, on a route that runs through the Jim Crow South.
In my review I cited seven things I loved about this book. (1) Its believable, sympathetic, flawed-yet-heroic main characters, (2) their chemistry, filled with longing, and their rightness for each other, (3) the small and large details that brought the unusual setting to life—everything from cloche hats, marcelled hair and a Model T, to the difficulty of finding a place to eat, a gas station, or a restroom for the children to use, (4) the spare lyricism of the writing, (5) the novel’s celebration of strength and perseverance in the face of racism, (6) the suspense of the dangerous journey that had my heart in my throat and finally, (7) that the characters’ faith felt organic. All these are reasons I hope more people read this novel.
There were some regrettable copyediting errors in A Champion’s Heart, but it has really stuck with me. After compiling my 2017 list, I realized that this was a December 2016 release, but couldn’t bear to leave it off.
Baby, Come Back by M. O’Keefe
O’Keefe writes so many books that it’s a struggle for me to keep up with her output, but I’m glad Baby, Come Back arrived in my inbox. I opened this steamy contemporary romance to read a page or two and wound up ensnared. The cover art is misleading, since the baby doesn’t appear until the epilogue. Instead, this is an emotional, redemptive journey for both protagonists, a reluctant mobster and a “bad girl.”
Jack and Abby meet at a club where they work and although he tries to warn her away from him, she is fascinated. After a bad night at the club they end up talking at a diner, and then embark on a magical, weekend-long affair, after which they vow there will be no further contact between them. But when Abby discovers she is pregnant and then witnesses a crime, she runs away. Jack pursues her.
In another writer’s hands, this story might have been ham-fisted or clumsy. Here, it was neither, though I did wish more of Abby’s growth had been shown as it was taking place. As I said in my review,
“I loved the tight writing and the imagery in the figurative language. I loved the way it was told, first in Abby’s voice, then in Jack’s, and then back and forth. I loved the characters and I loved the sweetness of their relationship, as well as the chemistry between them.
There was a delicacy to the way the story unfolded, a specificity to the characterization and a precision to the writing that are really uncommon. The journey, the reading experience, was emotional but the emotion felt sincere and honest[…].” This was a beautiful, almost haunting read.
Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner
I am a fan of Megan Turner Whalen’s Queen’s Thief series of YA fantasy novels, and this, the fifth, did not disappoint. It tells the story of Kamet, a slave to the Mede Emperor’s former ambassador to Attolia, Nahuseresh, and his companion on a dangerous journey, an Attolian soldier.
When Kamet hears of his master’s poisoning, he fears he will be blamed and executed, so he runs away. He is assisted in his escape by the Attolian soldier and pursued by the Emperor’s elite guard. Though he comes to trust the Attolian more and more, Kamet dares not confide in him about his being pursued. He is certain that if the truth comes to light, he will be returned to the Mede capital and executed. While the Attolian promises him shelter in his homeland, Kamet has a different, secret plan.
Interspersed with Kamet’s narration are the Gilgamesh-like myths that feature Immakuk and Ennikar, two immortal fast friends.
Though its pacing was a bit uneven, Thick as Thieves has a lot to offer, from Turner’s trademark twists, turns, and divine interventions to the friendship / bromance that develops between Kamet and the Attolian. Just how much there is to their relationship is left to readers to decide. There is less of Gen on page in this book than the earlier novels, but as with each book in the series, we see a new facet of him and Irene. Another great aspect of Thick as Thieves is Kamet’s internal journey, his discovery of a new identity as he decides what freedom will mean for him.
Andrews’ two urban fantasy sequels to Burn for Me were even better than the first book, with Rogan and Nevada going toe to toe, admitting their attraction, and joining forces on two cases.
As it becomes clearer that behind the murders is the same group that endangered Houston in Burn for Me, Nevada must learn how to protect herself and her loved ones while still remaining true to her values. Complicating things is the exposure of Nevada’s family as powerful mages, something that could place them in danger.
In a world where people marry to develop their bloodline’s magical powers, can Rogan and Nevada’s love survive? And can they unearth the conspiracy against them and against Houston’s powerless without losing their integrity?
Nevada is a terrific heroine: smart, level-headed, and funny, as well as 100% devoted to her loved ones and her job. It’s impossible not to like her, though by book three, she is skating close to ruthlessness. Rogan, on the other hand, starts out utterly ruthless but learns to respect Nevada’s need to come up with solutions to her problems.
Rounding out the cast is Nevada’s family of four strong women—her mechanic grandmother, her sniper mother, and her sisters, whose powers I won’t go into for spoilers—and two clever cousins, Bern, a computer mage, and Leon (again a spoiler). Cornelius Harrison and his four-year-old-daughter, Matilda, both animal mages, are embraced as unofficial members of the family.
With familial love, moral and personal dilemmas, magic and romance at its center, the Hidden Legacy series is, for my money, the best and most consistently strong series the authors have put out thus far. And that is saying a lot. Hopefully, there will be more books.
Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai
Their relationship haunted by a tragedy that caused a rift between their once-close families, Nicholas Chandler and Livvy Oka-Kane separated as teenagers. Except for the one secret night a year they allowed themselves every year but the last, Nick and Livvy haven’t seen each other in ten years.
But now Livvy is back in town to help her mother recover from a hip injury, and Nick finds he can’t stay away from her, even though a family member holds a threat over his head. Livvy, too, can’t keep away from Nick. Not just because of their smoking hot chemistry in bed, but because she feels too much for him.
Are Nick and Livvy bad for each other, as they keep telling themselves, or do they belong together? Can their families, as well as their hearts, forgive if not forget, heal the rift, and reunite?
With a diverse cast (Livvy and most of her family are Japanese-American and Hawaiian, while her best friend / sister-in-law Sadia is Pakistani-American) and a lot of heart, this steamy contemporary romance is a story of desire and yearning that cannot be banked.
Combining tropes from erotic romance and family sagas with a psychological exploration of depression (Livvy) and suppressed emotion (Nicholas), Hate to Want You gives us a different kind of CEO hero, one who has to navigate product boycotts as well as corporate expansion, and in doing so, listen to his inner compass. Livvy, meanwhile, must apply what she’s learning in therapy to her relationships, both familial and romantic.
Some of the dialogue was a bit on the nose, and the villain felt underdeveloped, but in standing up for their feelings and finding their way back to each other, Livvy and Nicholas won my heart.
Jesse’s Girl by Suleikha Snyder
Since this free short story, found here, is only a bit over six pages long, it’s best not to say much about it. I will just reproduce my mini-review:
This contest-winning, song-inspired contemporary short story feels fresh on more than one level. Written entirely in second person (“It takes you three weeks to work up the nerve,” is the killer opening line) and steeped in details that make it lifelike, from cow-shaped salt and pepper shakers to bright red toenail polish, it’s a story in which the narrator confronts the other woman, the one with whom her husband cheated.
There’s more here than surface appearances suggest, though, including a twist that I won’t spoil because I loved the way it took me by surprise. Snyder’s small town isn’t your typical idealized small town, either. Can the heroine find her way back to her love, even after the cheating? You’ll have to read it to find out. I wished that Jesse’s Girl were longer, so that I could know the main characters better, but I loved it.
Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman
When small-batch, independent yarn dyer Clara Ziegler contacts painter Danielle Solomon for permission to use color schemes from Danielle’s paintings for her wool, it’s the start of something. But is that something friendship, or is Danielle, too, interested in more? Danielle has recently been through a painful experience, and she’s vulnerable as a result. Can Clara pursue a romantic relationship with her friend, while still respecting Danielle’s needs?
This was a short and sweet novella with a lot of authenticity. Clara and Danielle are both Jewish and their conversations around kosher-keeping were appropriate concerns that might come up when dating a fellow Jew. The story was also fat-shaming free. But its best aspect was the characters’ tenderness with each other, their respect for one another’s fragile spots. Though only 68 pages long and low-conflict, this novella has stuck with me.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Glasgow office clerk Eleanor Oliphant isn’t good with social skills. She’s literal and blunt, even rude. She rarely diverges from a set schedule that includes drinking vodka over the weekend and phone calls with her abusive mother on Wednesdays. At her mom’s encouragement, she even stalks a musician whom she is convinced will marry her.
But when Eleanor, along with a co-worker named Raymond, inadvertently rescues an elderly man who passes out in the street, a new world opens up to her. A world filled with social connections, makeovers, friendships, and the possibility that she isn’t as horrible as she believes herself to be. Maybe, just maybe, Eleanor is worth saving.
I read this book late in the year and what a treat it was. Lonely-outsider-finds-a-community is one of my favorite tropes, and redemption / self-forgiveness is another. This sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious and incisive novel can be read as a literary work, a women’s fiction novel or a chick lit novel, but also has a central, if subtle, romantic angle. I was left with the question of what triggered the first changes in Eleanor, but I loved it.
Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor’s sequel to Akata Witch finds Sunny Nwazue, now thirteen, struggling to balance learning magic with leading the semblance of a normal life. Between the threats that Chukwu, her older brother, faces from a confraternity at his university, to her struggles to decipher the magical alphabet of Nsibidi, the Lake monster’s taste for her, and her nightmares of a city of smoke, Sunny’s life is more than full.
But Sunny has a destiny to fulfill, and a mortal enemy, the terrifying Ekwensu, to confront. When she and Anyanwu, her spirit face, become separated, Sunny, with the help of friends Sasha, Chichi and Orlu, must undertake a perilous journey and discover hidden reserves of strength.
Written with humor, verve and the occasional scary thrill, Akata Warrior, like its prequel, is a charming, entertaining book. There is great camaraderie and friendship in this series, a very subtle romance for Sunny (she’s just thirteen), and best of all, Sunny herself is an endearing protagonist, vulnerable but possessed of a strong sense of self.
Akata Warrior is a bit reminiscent of the Harry Potter books, but with a Nigerian-American girl heroine and a Nigerian setting. The mythology is interesting and the fantasy inventive, and though some of the scares were almost too scary, I enjoyed it a lot. My favorite aspect was the new relationships Sunny developed with her brothers and herself.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Sweet-natured, gentle Saeed and strong-willed, independent Nadia meet in a country torn apart by civil war. As the situation in their homeland grows dire, Nadia’s trust in Saeed and his allegiance to her strengthen. Both suffer personal losses, and when they hear rumors of doors that are portals to other countries, doors that can whisk one to safety, they decide to migrate together.
From the Middle East to the Greek island of Mykonos, to London and then to the Bay Area, Saeed and Nadia’s journey sees them encounter both natives and other migrants, some helpful and kind, and others dangerous and even hateful. Their relationship to the places they transplant to transforms them and their connection to one another as they experience culture shock, turbulence, nostalgia, and newfound hope.
Literary fabulism is the best possible genre for this particular novel, because experiences like war on your own shores and migration to a foreign country are in truth surreal. The portals that opened in doorways fit naturally into the storyline, and little vignettes about new, unfamiliar characters touched me, portraying separations, reunions, and new connections, in one case even a sweet romantic relationship between elderly men from different hemispheres.
Saeed and Nadia’s love story, meanwhile, captured the way intense times can bring out intense feelings. The way their feelings for each other changed over time was believable. The resolution to a dark moment was unconvincing, but I loved this novel for the beauty and insightfulness of the narration, with its startling metaphors, sometimes profound insights, and acute yet gentle understanding of both our world, and Saeed and Nadia.