It’s the end of the year; I work in retail; I have the flu. All of which means that for the past couple weeks I’ve been re-reading rather than reading. Mostly Eva Ibbotson, whose warmth reminds me not only that I love reading, but why. Which makes this a good time for a retrospective list. Below are my top 10 reads for 2012. They’re not ranked in any order, just listed alphabetically by author. If anyone has any to add, please feel free to do so. I can always use more suggestions for what to try next.
Mary Balogh, The Proposal
Gwendoline, the widowed Lady Muir, is the sister of the hero of one of Balogh’s earlier novels, and the cousin of the heroine of another. She has appeared in several of Balogh’s books, with her dead husband described in such glowing terms that we just knew something had to be wrong there somewhere. And there was, though not what I expected (and thank you for that, Mary Balogh!).
Hugo, Lord Trentham, is one of the self-named Survivor’s Club: individuals who were severely damaged in the war in France. His own damage was emotional rather than physical, and Balogh does a good job of describing the consequences of surviving the unsurvivable. He and Gwendoline are attracted to one another on sight, but both are leery of approaching an actual relationship. Gwendoline is cautious because of the burden she still carries from her first marriage. Hugo is more concerned about their class differences, a very real problem which Balogh handles gracefully.
The prologue about the Survivor’s Club is a little heavy-handed on the info-dump, but it definitely sets up the stories to come. I truly loved watching both Gwendoline and Hugo come into their own, and can’t wait to see them again as I read about their friends.
Julie James, About That Night
Kyle Rhodes is just out of prison when he’s called to be the star witness in a serious criminal case. Assistant US attorney Rylann Pierce isn’t thrilled with the situation either, especially when it turns out that they met once before. Sparks had flown then, and they still do now, making what should have been an open-and-shut hearing a major conflagration.
I love James’ work, but was a little leery when I picked it up: having been a social worker, I have a less than rosy view of ex-cons. However, Kyle was a different kind of criminal. When his model girlfriend dumped him publicly on Twitter, he hacked the site in a drunken fury, determined that no one else would be humiliated the same way. The next morning, sober and regretful, he turned himself in to serve his time. Now he’s ready to move on the next phase of his life. He is not, however, ready for Rylann. Smart, fun reading, full of all the ways our past choices come back to haunt or help us.
Lisa Kleypas, Dream Lake
This is the third of Kleypas’ books set in the fictional town of Friday Harbour, and thus far it’s my favourite. Zoe Hoffman, who cooks at her cousin’s inn, is kind, gentle, and a romantic. Alex Nolan is hard, bitter, and entirely closed off from emotion. A formerly-successful developer who has fallen on hard times, Alex is working as a contractor to pay the bills. When Zoe hires Alex to fix up her cottage in anticipation of her grandmother’s release from hospital, the two begin to draw out things in one another that neither knew existed.
Dream Lake deals with some tough subjects. Zoe’s grandmother is sinking into dementia, and Kleypas doesn’t shy away from the subtle horrors that follow when a loved one becomes someone else through no fault of her own. Alex, the adult child of two alcholics whose terrible decisions still haunt him, is well into alcholism himself, and Kleypas doesn’t sugarcoat the problem, or its serious physical and emotional repercussions. But when Alex decides to quit drinking, he opens himself up to more than just a healthier liver: he gives himself a chance to really live, free of the shadows of the past.
There’s a ghost story, too, It’s a good one, about WWII, and chances not taken. But the real work is done by Alex, and to a lesser extent Zoe, as they each learn to free themselves from the weight of their pasts. Stirring and beautiful.
Barbara O’Neal, The Garden of Happy Endings
I talked about this one before, here, so I won’t say much else except: I loved this book.
Terry Pratchett, Dodger
This is not a Discworld novel, which made me a little nervous, I’ll admit. But Pratchett’s writing is still magic, even when the world he’s writing about isn’t. The novel is set in the the streets of Victorian London, streets the titular Dodger owns by virtue of his occupation. He’s a tosher, who goes through the sewers looking for anything valuable that might wash up. It’s a tough, unimaginably filthy job, and those who do it generally don’t live very long. But Dodger is a little brighter than the average tosher; a little cleaner; a little healthier; and a lot more curious.
It’s the last that sets him off on his grand adventure. Drawn to a scuffle, Dodger helps a young woman flee the men attempting to kill her. As a result, his entire life changes shortly thereafter. Dodger is a gorgeous romp of a book, with all the profound insight into the intricacies of human behaviour that Pratchett is known for, wrapped in delightfully Dickensian language (really Dickensian: Dickens is a character). And it perfectly captures both that moment when you realize that the sum total of everything you know about the world is only the tiniest scrap of what there is to know… and the moment you throw yourself at the rest of the world with arms and mind open wide. Absolutely lovely: definitely not a Romance (though it does have a love story).
J.D. Robb, Celebrity in Death
I always enjoy the latest Eve Dallas offering, but Celebrity in Death was particularly fun. It’s lighter in tone that both its precursor and follow-up, which made welcome change. Don’t get me wrong; I love the intense stories, too. But this almost-frothy adventure was my favourite from Robb this year. Almost frothy, because of course it is about murder. Murder on a film set, in fact. And what makes it worse is that the film in question is based on one of Dallas’ own cases. Dallas and her partner, Peabody, tour the set and are a little discomfitted (Dallas) and a lot pleased (Peabody). But when the actress playing Peabody is found dead at major Hollywood party, both cops go to work.
Over the course of this series we’ve watched Peabody go from uniform to detective, and in recent books, she has really come into her own. Celebrity in Death gives her another chance to shine. I have no idea if the details surrounding the movie set are accurate; they certainly felt real, and that made the book for me.
Jill Shalvis, At Last
The third in Shalvis’ second trilogy set in Lucky Harbour, At Last is my pick of the lot. It’s the story of Amy Michaels, waitress and former hell raiser, and Matt Bowers, a local forest ranger. Matt used to be a cop in a major city, and he’s used to keeping himself and his emotions under control. But from the very first time he rescues a lost Amy from the woods, he’s drawn to her. Nor is he fooled by her take-no-prisoners attitude: he recognizes it for the defense mechanism it is. For her part Amy is beginning to relax for the first time in years. She has a job she enjoys, and friends, and old family journals that she hopes will lead her to understand her own past. She doesn’t have time for a big, tough forest ranger, no matter how appealing he is. Besides, she has shown spectacularly bad judgement when it comes to men in the past.
Needless to say, they fall in love. Amy, who has seen much less of that emotion in her life, is much slower to recognize what’s going on than Matt, which made for a pleasant change. I also liked how Shalvis handled the events of Amy’s past, and how it played into her decision to be more than the sum of her worst choices. Fun reading with a backbone.
Sharon Shinn, The Shape of Desire
Maria loves Dante. Which is complicated, because Dante is a shape-shifter. This is no ordinary girl-loves-werewolf story: Dante cannot control his shifting, and changes into many sorts of animal. He wanders wild for weeks at a time, coming back to Maria when he is able to turn human. And she has kept this secret from everyone for more than a decade. But recently, something, some animal thing, has been killing people in the local reservation. And Maria has to decide just how wild is the man she loves.
I worried I was going to get shape-shifting as metaphor for emotional unavailablity — and was deeply pleased to realize, no, he was an actual shape-shifter. From a family of such, in fact. As a whole, The Shape of Desire is a much quieter book than Shinn’s previous title. It’s a small story, about a woman, her family, friends, work. But it’s a gorgeous little jewelbox of a story, full of observations about love, and the secrets we keep — or reveal — for it. Tender, sexy, disturbing, wise.
Sherry Thomas, Ravishing the Heiress
I talked about this book here. So I’ll just reiterate that it was terrific, and well worth the read. The whole series was enjoyable; this one was my favourite.
I’ve been a fan of Martha Wells since her very first book, The Element of Fire. She has the amazing ability to make her characters sound modern, without in any way making them our contemporaries. And her world-building is immense and complex — while at the same time being amazingly subtle. You never get the ham-handed sense that she has Done Her Research: you just experience her worlds as her characters do.
And what characters! The Serpent Sea is the second book of the Raksura, about a race of flying shape-changers who live in courts governed by complex (and often unwritten) rules. The first book, The Cloud Roads, introduced Moon, a Raksura just discovering his birthright after a lifetime alone. The Serpent Sea takes up when his court returns to their ancestral home, an unimaginably huge mountain tree. When the seed at the heart of the tree is stolen, Moon and his friends go after it. The search proves even more difficult than they’d anticipated, involving rival Raksura courts, strange groundling magicians, and a city built on the back of a giant water monster. It’s hard to describe without sounding silly. But Wells’ absorbing prose is anything but.
Martha Wells, The Siren Depths
Bonus entry! Yep, I’m counting her twice. Because The Siren Depths is probably the book I was most looking forward to all year. And it didn’t disappoint.
After the adventures of Serpent Sea, Moon is back in his home court, learning the various cultural norms of his people, and trying to start a clutch with his mate Jade. For the first time in his life, he is among his own people, accepted, and cautiously learning to be happy. Which, of course, is when everything goes wrong. Another court lays claim to Moon. Moon arrives at his birthcourt in the midst of a difficult time: an evil race called the Fell has infiltrated a nearby city. But the Fell, bad as they are, might be only the tip of the problem. It will take all of Moon’s ingenuity, and that of both his home and birth courts, to survive.
I could read books about the Raksura forever. One of the best parts of getting this book was that I got to read books 1 and 2 again. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.
Chris Szego wishes you Merry and Happy, and reminds you that only morons drink and drive.