2014 – a summary of my reading, historical romance edition

2014 was a busy year. My eldest started Kindergarten, my youngest hit her stride of the terrible, terrible threes (the twos have got nuthin’ on the threes. Yeesh. I’m a little surprised we all survived it.), things at work were consistently nuts, and I did a lot of things at that place where I volunteer a lot of my time (vague much, Kelly?). Oh, and I read a shit ton of books. Some of them were sooooooooo good, some of them were not.

I’m super disorganized; I don’t take notes when I read; and my memory (like anyone’s, if we’re being honest) tends to warp after a certain period of time, favoring the books I’ve loved recently to the ones I loved last January. All that to say, I’m not going to bother doing a formalized list of my favorite reads of the year. (Has anyone else noticed that, in my return to blogging, my voice is a bit more curmudgeonly? Damn kids get off my lawn! I just want to write about books over here *grumble grumble grumble* Ahem. I’ll try to be less ornery.)

Oh! And — because it’s already a week into January and most people in the book blogging world are much more timely than I — I’ve read a bunch of 2014 summary posts. So, if I’m copying your style (you know who you are), it’s because I think you’re awesome. And it’s late at night. Also, you do these things so much better than I do. Honestly. I applied some seriously half-assed organization and then alphabetized the books by title (because?). Then I wrote 1600 words about the first thirteen books on the list and realized I needed to split this shit up. Stay tuned for two more of these monster posts about all the books.

Right. So here are my favorite historical romances read in 2014. Not all of these books were published last year, but they’re all worth reading (again and again).

Historical romance – my first love:

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant
A Lily Among Thorns by Rose Lerner
Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex
Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare
The Secret Heart / The Lover’s Knot by Erin Satie
Seduced by Molly O’Keefe
Strangers at the Altar by Marguerite Kaye
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
Summer Chaparral by Genevieve Turner
Untamed by Anna Cowan

Y’all knew I love historical romance, right? I could happily do a top ten for 2014 from this list alone. A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong was one of my last reads of 2014 (and part of one of my best reading weeks ever, when I read 5 of the books on the above list). It’s a misadventure that starts with an ill-advised falcon purchase and ends with love, via a broken carriage, a loving community, and a dried apple pie. It is a celebration of compassion, family, community and love (and pie). A Lily Among Thorns is scrumptious, you guys. It’s got a former-courtesan-turned-innkeeper heroine (who’s also kind of a crime boss) matched with a grieving chemist. There is quite a lot of plot (in a good way), but my favorite scenes were the quieter moments between the characters. Honestly, though, it had me at Serena. She’s amazeballs.

I got a little bit manic after I finished Almost a Scandal. After her brother skips town to avoid joining the navy (the family business) the heroine assumes his identity and joins the navy in his place. (I need to put in some exclamation points here. !!!!!) The writing is rich in metaphor and a perfect complement to this story about identity, integrity and how little your genitals have to do with your ability to use trigonometry to chart a course. Kim and I wrote about Romancing the Duke earlier in the year, but — nearly twelve months later — it’s still one of my favorite books. It’s a perfect balance of wild humor and poignant emotion. (You know what, while I’m on the subject of Tessa Dare’s books, I should give a shout-out to Say Yes to the Marquess because cake. A whole room of cake. I happen to like the heroine of RtD a bit better, which tips the scales for me, but SYttM has 500% more cake. So.)

I read The Secret Heart and The Lover’s Knot during that epic reading week. The Secret Heart brings together a duke’s heir who’d rather be prizefighting and a money-challenged heroine who’d rather be dancing ballet (and avoiding her mostly horrible family). Together they solve a crime, have angry sex and fight the status quo with the power of ‘I don’t even give a fuck.” I loved it. The Lover’s Knot continues the series in a new locale with a memory-challenged ink merchant (former heiress) and the newly-minted duke to whom she was engaged for one whopping night, ten years prior. I’m going to review both books in the next week (ish), so I’ll leave it at that. Seduced is straight up beautiful, set in the post-bellum American West (Colorado, I think), with characters whose lives have been ravaged by the war. Miss Bates recommends this one, and I really can’t improve on her thoughts about it.

Strangers at the Altar is (I think) one of Kaye’s best books (and y’all might have noticed that I’m kind of a fan of hers). It’s a marriage of convenience story involving an advice columnist heroine matched with an engineer laird. My favorite moments are the parts where the heroine attempts to pen bedroom advice that won’t overset her readers, but — really — the whole thing was great. The Suffragette Scandal makes the best use of the exclamation point EVER, and it has my favorite of all of Milan’s characters (and that’s saying something, because Jonas from A Kiss for Midwinter set the bar until now). Free is, like all of Milan’s recent heroines, a force to be reckoned with but one who exists in a world that silences and obscures her (for her own safety, of course). The difference with Free is she asserts that it is the system that is wrong, not her, and that she can (and will) change it, woman by woman, and man by man. And Edward is… well, just read it, and you’ll see.

Summer Chaparral is at once a sweeping epic of time and place and a deeply personal tale of family loyalties and individual needs. It is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet (but without the downer ending and meddling Friar), set in the San Jacinto mountains of southern California at the end of the nineteenth century, and it grapples with systemic racism, urbanization, and reconciliation in subtly beautiful prose. Untamed was the recipient of a lot of buzz (some positive, some negative) in 2013, and I honestly have no idea why I didn’t get around to reading it until the last week of December (in that epic reading week). I happened to love it, even though it does some taboo things. You can’t talk about the book without mentioning that the hero spends more than half of the book dressed as a woman, but I — true to my nature — thought the heroine was the more remarkable and interesting character. Love it or hate it (and, yeah, I’m late to the party), every reader of historical romance should check this one out just to see where they fall on the continuum. (And it has adorable pet pig antics. Just saying.)

Assuming you got through all that, you now know why I decided to split this recap into three posts. Stay tuned over the next couple of days for my thoughts on all my favorite contemporary romances (including a few quirky ones that I think might appeal to folk who find sex scenes uncomfortable to read). Finally, I’ll do a separate post talking about my favorite erotic romances, works of erotica, and “other” books (one nonfiction, one…. poetry anthology/humor??).

My best and worst reads in 2013

I read a lot of books this year (172 as of my writing this), and I thought it might be fun to identify the outliers at both ends of the spectrum.

The Best:

1.  The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers – There is so much life in this novella, complete with joy and pain, disappointment and transcendence. It is, without doubt, the best book I read all year. (*)

2.  Big Boy by Ruthie Knox – Hands down my favorite Ruthie Knox book (which is really saying something, guys), Big Boy is remarkably atypical for the genre.  It features characters whose sole, necessary, act of selfishness in lives governed by sacrifice is the small amount of time they take from each other.  And when they shift to giving instead of taking? It’s magic. (<3)

3.  Snow-Kissed by Laura Florand – Infertility, grief, and a broken marriage, these are the subjects of this beautifully moving novella that explores the jagged edges of two people, long in love, who were blown apart by grief but who find a way back.   (<3)

4.  A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant – I don’t know that I have ever been more surprised by a romance novel than I was by Cecilia Grant’s debut.  Thematically, the novel discusses trust, intimacy, and the slow development of love with humor so sly it’s easy to miss.  But it’s most remarkable (I think) for its complete lack of instalust and magical chemistry.  If you haven’t read this book, you really should. (<3)

5.  About Last Night by Ruthie Knox – I read this book in one sitting and, when I was done, I started it again immediately, because I just wasn’t ready to let it go. Through this book, Knox taught me how to be a better reader (and, by extension, a better woman, perhaps), to sit and savor the moments of truth that can be found in a book, to rediscover and embrace the reason I read.  (<3)

6 and 7.  The Heiress Effect and The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan – My favorite thing about Courtney MIlan’s writing is that when you start reading her books, her characters always seem so damn mysterious, and that mystery never seems like a clever device to snag reader interest.  It’s just that her characters are so full, possess such depth, that it takes a few hundred pages to get to know them.  And then you do, and your heart just breaks, because their issues are real.  You’ve met women like Jane, and you know your history — and your current affairs — so you know her plight (and her sister’s) is not unusual.  You know that all the pieces of Violet’s character really existed, lived out by real women throughout the ages.  And it hurts so much to know it, so deeply, so viscerally, a punch.  But you also know men like Oliver and Sebastian.  And even though it hurts so much to read and experience all that reality, at the end you are gifted a triumph, and it gives you the strength to keep putting your back into it, to keep living your life. (<3)

8.  The Mistress by Tiffany Reisz – By the time I reached the end of The Mistress, I was crying a little, laughing a lot, pumping my fist in the air, feeling intellectually alive and overwhelmed by joy.  And I felt rather like I did after I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the first time, like this story that had always existed behind a veil had been revealed, and I’d had the good fortune to witness that unveiling.   (*)

9.  Too Hot to Handle by Victoria Dahl – This book is funny, but it isn’t lighthearted.  It’s like that moment when the seas of life have buffeted you about so much that you end up getting a mouthful of sea water, and you try to spit it out with some dignity, but it just comes out as warm, extra salty drool, and suddenly it’s fucking hilarious that — on top of everything else — you’ve just drooled, so instead of worrying about drowning, you just laugh.  Anyway, it’s kind of a coming of age story for people who waited until their thirties to figure themselves out, but it doesn’t have any of that angst because it just doesn’t have time for bullshit. (*)

10.  To Win Her Heart by Karen Witemeyer – This one made the list because it is probably the most romantic story I read all year.  I mean, come on: Eden and Levi fall in love writing letters to each other about Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.  It was a foregone conclusion that I would love this story, that it would stick with me all year. (<3)

 The Worst

Well, there are the obvious contenders for worst books read all year.  there’s even an obvious winner.  But there were also a slew of books that just disappointed me (or made me disappointed in myself).  Chief among these is:

Most disappointing book of 2013: And Then She Fell by Stephanie Laurens (<3 :~(…).  I cannot believe that I bought this, my 31st Laurens book.  I am deeply disappointed in myself.  On the other hand, it seems to have finally helped me break the cycle of addiction.  The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh, the next book in the series, has been out for six months, and I’ve had absolutely no desire to purchase it.

So there you have it.  Many of these books were published in 2013 but not all of them.  Some of these books were received as e-ARCs from publishers (marked with *) and some were purchased by me (marked with <3).

What are the best and worst books you read this year?

 

Review – A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant

So, I’d heard of Cecilia Grant, of course.  I read her amazing post about feminism and romance, and I admired her for opening up a discussion on the issue to explore the nuances of culture, feminism, romance, love, gender, story, ideology, etc.  But I hadn’t read any of her books until last month when I saw this book come up on NetGalley and thought, gosh, that author’s name seems familiar, somehow.  I think I’ll read that one.  I didn’t put the dots together until after I’d finished the book (and bought and read her first two books).

Cover image, A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant

The publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Kate Westbrook has dreams far bigger than romance. Love won’t get her into London’s most consequential parties, nor prevent her sisters from being snubbed and looked down upon—all because their besotted father unadvisedly married an actress. But a noble husband for Kate would deliver a future most suited to the granddaughter of an earl. Armed with ingenuity, breathtaking beauty, and the help of an idle aunt with connections, Kate is poised to make her dreams come true. Unfortunately, a familiar face—albeit a maddeningly handsome one—appears bent on upsetting her scheme.

Implored by Kate’s worried father to fend off the rogues eager to exploit his daughter’s charms, Nick Blackshear has set aside the torch he’s carried for Kate in order to do right by his friend. Anyway, she made quite clear that his feelings were not returned—though policing her won’t abate Nick’s desire. Reckless passion leads to love’s awakening, but time is running out. Kate must see for herself that the charms of high society are nothing compared to the infinite sweet pleasures demanded by the heart.

You know how sometimes you read on autopilot, without devoting your full (or even a majority share) attention to the book?  Other readers will have a different mass of distractions, of course, but here’s my typical list: when reading at home, my kids playing and calling for my attention, TV on in the background, the mountain of housework I don’t feel like doing sitting there staring at me with judgement in its figurative eyes, my husband looking back and forth between that mountain and me with a book in my hands, my thoughts about the day I just had and the one that faces me tomorrow, my never-ending to-do list scrolling through my mind, etc.; when reading at work on a break, emails popping up on my screen, music playing in one ear, my phone, Twitter, my never-ending to-do list scrolling through my mind, etc.  And most of the time I can enjoy a story even with that distracting and desperate soundtrack playing in the background, but sometimes I stumble upon a book that is so much bigger, in its narrative, than my life’s soundtrack.  These books drown out all that background noise and leave me feeling refreshed and energized, the way I’m supposed to feel after reading a book.  (Also, I can’t read them around my kids, because I don’t feel right completely ignoring them…)

A Woman Entangled is one of those books.  It grabbed my interest by the fourth page, and it didn’t let go until I’d finished the book.  Even then, I was still caught up with thinking about it.  It has:

  1. Pride and Prejudice references galore, and the story foils P&P except that the roles are a little bit reversed with Kate playing proud but vulnerable Darcy and Nick playing worthy but mortified Elizabeth.  That makes Kate sound just awful, but she isn’t.  
  2. Humor, but the author’s voice is rather serious.  The humor is witty and a bit wry, and I loved it.
  3. Discussions about women in (Regency) culture (that have applications to our culture today).  Kate and Nick have a memorable conversation about the impossible cultural need for women to be beautiful (and thus receive the attention of countless menfolk) yet remain in ignorance of their beauty (despite all that male attention).  There are plenty of other discussions, but that’s the one I bookmarked.
  4. Friendship between women whose conversation does not revolve around the male characters (this book passes the Bechtel test with flying colors.).  Even better, the book proffers the idea that friendship with a worthy woman could be just as desirable and helpful to a woman looking to find some security in the world as marriage to a worthy man (more, perhaps, as friendship doesn’t involve the transaction of one’s self into another’s keeping).

It’s that last point that is so interesting and important.  As the romance builds between Kate and Nick, I found myself waiting for the moment when Kate would realize that all her goals were less important than the power of love or that Nick was a more worthy prize than social acceptance.  I kept waiting for Kate to have to compromise her values or to discover that her long-held values were actually wrong somehow.  I waited in vain.  I even began to worry that the book (a romance novel!) wouldn’t have a happily ever after.  The ending was so unexpected, and in a way that’s sad.  It’s sad that I kept expecting the novel to bow to patriarchy — to devalue Kate’s feminine drive towards social acceptance, to force Kate to subject her desires in order to have a relationship with Nick, to confirm the idea that Kate’s happiness can be achieved only through her relationship with Nick (and her letting go of her other goals) — and it’s sad that I was so surprised by the book’s resolution.

Bottom line: I loved this book, and Cecilia Grant has earned a spot on my auto-buy and my ‘authors I want to high-five’ lists.

A Woman Entangled was released as a mass-market paperback and e-book  on June 25, 2013 by Bantam Dell, a division of Random House.  If you’re interested in learning more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  To learn more about Cecilia Grant, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Bantam Dell via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*