It’s a good problem to have, meaning I read wonderful books this year. Other than romance, I read nonfiction, general fiction, literary fiction, and children’s picture books. However, for the list here for AAR, I have included only romance and general fiction with a romantic subplot.
So in no particular order, my Best of 2017…
Beauty Like the Night by Joanna Bourne
Bourne is currently my favorite historical romance writer. Her writing, so delicately nuanced like a finely-honed, well-balanced blade, has captured my imagination like no other romance writer ever has. How does she envisage such intricacy of emotion and personality for her characters, such complexity of plot, and above all, such precision in language? Comte Raoul Deverney, a vintner and a sometime jewel thief, hires Séverine de Cabrillac, an ex-spy and a private detective, against her better judgment, to find Pilar, the daughter of his former wife, who’s now lost in London’s stews. Along the way, they’re assisted by Lazarus’s feral children as they fight to stay ahead of Sévie’s enemies from her spying days. Their romance is one of shifting shadows, at once, a chimera and a force to be reckoned with.
A Lady’s Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran
I consider Meredith Duran one of the finest historical romance authors writing today. Given any storyline or any romance trope, she makes it fresh and new and interesting. The characters’ reactions are never commonplace, the plots are never tired and predictable, and the writing is always to the point and yet lovely at the same time. This book features an amnesia trope that is handled so well. It’s a political Victorian story involving a Member of Parliament, a woman raised in a political family, and a mystery they must unravel else their lives are at stake. At heart, this is a story of trust: Can a woman trust her instincts when it comes to the most important person in her life — her husband? The book is a fascinating study in how fragile and malleable trust is and how easily it can be abused or even bruised.
Pretty Face by Lucy Parker
Much like Lucy Parker’s début Act Like It, this book is fabulous with snappy dialog, biting wit, modern characterization, the London theater scene, and all of it so detailed and well-tuned. Parker’s talent is in building tight, complex relationships that don’t feel rushed or glossed over. All the problems are out in the open, and they are all dealt with. There’re no deus ex machina events that magically get characters out of the tight spots they put themselves in. The book has a breezy irreverent tone to it that belies the serious nature of the choices the characters have to make. Actress Lily Lamprey has a body, face, and high, light voice that’s well-suited to a sexy TV soap but ill-suited for West End London theater. Luc Savage is a highly respected director, who’s coerced into taking Lily on. To their dismay, they discover instant chemistry, which would be highly detrimental to Lily’s reputation and future theater career (“dumb bunny sleeps her way into a role” being the expected headline).
Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer
I smiled from the first page to the last of this book, so delighted to be enjoying my introduction to Heyer’s short stories – I had previously read nearly all of her full-length romantic novels. While doing her research, Heyer’s biographer, Jennifer Kloester, came upon three of the author’s stories that haven’t been reprinted since their first publication in the 1930s. So this book contains these three new discoveries and also the eleven that were previously published in the anthology Pistols for Two. Not all of the tales in this collection are romantic tales, though most of them are, but they are all brimming with Heyer’s characteristic wit, acute observations, sparkling dialogue, and cheerful bon mots. Many of them are road-trip yarns, where the protagonists meet on the road or at an inn, where the rules of chaperonage and social engagement can be bent a little without any loss in reputation for the participants.
Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas
At long last, we get to see Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent from Kleypas’s famous Devil in Winter in print again. Although now, he’s a duke and his son, Gabriel, is Viscount St. Vincent. With this book, it feels like Kleypas has returned to her historical roots. She’s found her feet again, and her voice is assured, her comedic wit balanced, and her characters tender and big-hearted. Despite various naysayers, I liked the heroine and how, with her imperfections, she’s such a perfect foil for the glossy urbane hero. I enjoyed seeing how she struggles to assert herself and her rights as an entrepreneur in a Victorian society where a woman becomes the property of her husband after marriage and anything and everything she owns becomes his by right. What stood out for me is how much he respects her business acumen and innovation in the face of her other bumbling qualities and works to resolve her business issues and workaround the day’s existing laws.
The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian
This was my first m/m story, and I’m so glad I started with Cat Sebastian. She gets the Regency era just right, and here, she writes a true Beauty and the Beast story. Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, thinks he is mad. In reality, he’s merely eccentric and a brilliant inventor with a touch of agoraphobia and extreme shyness. Enter Georgie Turner, handsome thief and confidence artist posing as a secretary. I felt such tenderness for Radnor as he assumes his every moment of desire for Turner is a sign of incipient madness. Turner is the experienced one, but affection and admiration had never before been part of his dealings with his partners, and he is flummoxed by what Radnor brings out in him. These two men from such disparate backgrounds come together as such equals – I loved that about this book. Neither disdains the other for who they are, what they do, or their past. They’re concerned with who they are with each other.
The Horse Dancer by JoJo Moyes
Moyes’ writing really speaks to me, and I’m engrossed in her stories from the first paragraph. They’re visceral, descriptive, and tangible. Her prose is lean and direct, with no recourse to metaphors or flowery language, thus making it accessible and relatable. This book is a story of awesome responsibility and awful choices. The protagonist has an all-consuming, perfectionistic connection with her horse. When one trains with a Selle Français horse at the level of admittance to Le Cadre Noir, the premier French riding school, excellence is a given and so is devoting every atom of one’s body and mind towards that excellence. She has no time for emotions, rules, duties, academics, or people other than her grandfather. This is the driving force behind this book.
Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh
Set in the waning days of the British Empire in Kenya, it’s a tale of great sophistication and nuance. I read this book thrice this year, every time teasing out more of that emotional layering that McVeigh is so skillful at creating. At heart is the forbidden relationship between a white English girl and a black Kenyan. Having grown up together on that farm since childhood, the two protagonists cannot imagine a different life for themselves, yet political forces like the Mau Mau are creating rifts between the indigenous peoples and European settlers. The heroine also has to contend with how her late teen years spent in England, the death of her mother, and her father’s new family have irrevocably changed her. It was fascinating watching the protagonists try to capture their past relationship and try to overcome the socio-political struggles to transform it into a mature relationship of permanence.
The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams
This is a delicious puzzle box of a book with handsome writing that gives a new look to stories set in the Jazz Age. Switching between 1920s New York and contemporary times, the book is peopled by a witty irreverent flapper, a tough Prohibition agent, a young innocent Princeton student, an accounting wizard, and a musician carpenter. The contemporary and historical storylines intersect at various points in the book as two smart, clever women journey through life discovering themselves and their romantic inclinations. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The novel moves between the storylines smartly and quickly with powerful cliff-hangers and the two women leap off the page with a clarity and strength of purpose that is rare in stories. The connections forged between them across the decades is a journey of discovery for the reader.
Under a Sardinian Sky by Sara Alexander
This offers the reader a complete immersion into the Sardinia of the 1950s. Every page makes you feel as if you’re right there experiencing everything, as there is no detail deemed too big or too small to reveal the subtlest nuances of the setting. Joy of family and familial love is a theme that hums through this whole story, and food also plays a pivotal role in bringing people together and conveys a plethora of emotions from joy, sorrow, and fear to awkwardness, desire, and revulsion. This is a book in which emotions are intensely felt. It is evocative and unforgettable for its strong, heartfelt characters, for the glorious, sweeping vista of Sardinia, and for engaging my emotions so thoroughly that I couldn’t put it down.
And so another year of reading comes to a close. I have already made plans for my reading for 2018. Books have been put on hold for every month through August. Reviewing plans have been hatched and ARCs have been spoken for. My Spreadsheet of Joy, the detailed, meticulous record of every book I’ve read since 2013, has row upon row filled in with the order of reading mapped out. Now all I have to do is go forth and read…