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 – Stealing the Preacher by Karen Witemeyer

So after reading that terrible book, I knew I needed something wholesome and fun to help me redeem my faith in the world.  Very luckily for me, I had Karen Witemeyer’s Stealing the Preacher in my queue, and I started reading it the second I finished that other book.  It did the trick.

Cover image, Stealing the Preacher by Karen Witemeyer

The publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

On his way to interview for a position at a church in the Piney Woods of Texas, Crockett Archer can scarcely believe it when he’s forced off the train by a retired outlaw and presented to the man’s daughter as the minister she requested for her birthday. Worried this unfortunate detour will ruin his chances of finally serving a congregation of his own, Crockett is determined to escape. But when he finally gets away, he’s haunted by the memory of the young woman he left behind–a woman whose dreams now hinge on him.

For months, Joanna Robbins prayed for a preacher. A man to breathe life back into the abandoned church at the heart of her community. A man to assist her in fulfilling a promise to her dying mother. A man to help her discover answers to the questions that have been on her heart for so long. But just when it seems God has answered her prayers, it turns out the person is there against his will and has dreams of his own calling him elsewhere. Is there any way she can convince Crockett to stay in her little backwoods community? And does the attraction between them have any chance of blossoming when Joanna’s outlaw father is dead set against his daughter courting a preacher?

This is the second of Witemeyer’s books that I’ve read, and I enjoyed it just almost as much as I did the other.  Some of that liking may possibly be attributed to the sense of contrast I experienced in reading this book right after a boldly terrible book, but I honestly believe that I’d love this book even if I read it right after one of my favorite books.  At some point, I really must get off my duff and read Witemeyer’s other books.  She really has a way with writing believable, likable characters.

This book was a wee bit preachier than To Win Her Love, but maybe that’s to be expected considering one of the characters is, in fact, a preacher, and another character is the main impetus behind the reestablishment of a church in her neighborhood.  Preaching sort of fits in that context, no?  Anyway, I’m rather religious myself, so I certainly didn’t mind the increase in religious overtones.

Stealing the Preacher touches on the concepts of vocation and calling, trusting (the whims of) a higher power, justice (and injustice), rehabilitation, love, family, loss, community, faith, and the rather tricky problem of pain.  The romance between Crockett (one of the most interesting hero names I’ve ever come across) and Joanna is set against the backdrop of all these themes, and, far from being squeezed out by all these big ideas, the love story is enriched.  The book devotes a considerable amount of page time to the redemption of Joanna’s father, Silas, but I didn’t mind it, even when it felt like a distraction from the central story.  Silas provides Crockett an opportunity to show off his sterling qualities, and Joanna certainly takes note.  I don’t know — it worked for me.

One of the things I enjoy about Christian romances is that they follow a different story arc from standard romances.  Christian romances feature love stories that don’t involve sex as a crutch and, as a rule, steer clear of instalust, so the author has to find ways for the main characters to develop intimacy without being intimate (in our modern sense of the word).  One of the things I loved about To Win Her Love is that the main characters develop their relationship through reading and discussing Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.  How cool is that?  In Stealing the Preacher, Witemeyer allows her characters to fall in love while working together to establish a community church and heal Silas’ spirit.

I sort of veered into spoiler territory… if you want to risk it, just highlight the text to view it.

The conflict that drives this story is twofold: on the one hand, Silas holds out as long as possible before having his conversion experience; on the other, Joanna and Crockett’s relationship (and Crockett’s life) is threatened by a young, attractive succubus and her too-gullible father.  Silas’ incremental conversion story works, even as a plot device, but I was a tad irritated by the other conflict.  In a book set in a community, it irked me that (1) Joanna has no friends her age; (2) the only other woman Joanna’s age who gets any page time is Holly Brewster (the succubus) who gloms on to Crockett as to a life preserver, and, when that doesn’t yield the results she wants, attempts to seduce him and then, when that fails, manipulates her father into assuming that Crockett assaulted Holly; (3) after Holly’s father overreacts to the point of nearly lynching Crockett, his reaction is that it’s actually all Holly’s fault for possessing an impure spirit.  That progression bugs me… Holly’s father’s actions are entirely his fault and responsibility.  Moreover, it’s a little disturbing that the two examples of young, viable (in the marrying sense) femininity shown in this book are so extreme; Joanna’s purity is complete, and Holly’s sordid character is equally complete.  Middle ground is where reality hangs out, but there’s none of that in this book.

The bottom line, though, is that I enjoyed the book, even though the major conflict was troubling.

Stealing the Preacher  was released on June 1, 2013 as a paperback and e-book by Bethany House Publishers.  If you’re interested in learning more about the book, click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about Karen Witemeyer, please visit her website.

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

Blogging and genre – Armchair BEA Day 2

Well, it’s day 2 of Armchair BEA, and today, there are two topics: Blogger Development & Genre Fiction.

I’m certain I’m imposing my own insecurities on the question, but I have to be honest and admit that the very notion of assessing my development as a blogger makes me feel a bit inadequate.  The truth is that I consider this blog to be a hobby, a thing I do because I enjoy it, not because of any external pressure to perform.  Even if no one read this blog, I would still write it.  With that starting position, I feel very little compulsion to promote my blog, and if I drop off the map for three weeks because I’m unbelievably busy, I don’t feel at all bad about it.  That’s not to say that I don’t take this blog seriously — quite the opposite — but I don’t measure success in terms of popularity or marketability.  I have a job, and this blog isn’t it.

That said, I have developed quite a lot over the past year.  For one thing, I’m a better reader than I was.  For another, I’m a better writer.  Best of all, this past year of blogging has helped me to chip away at my habitual reserve, to make some friends (never easy for me to do), to say some true things and put them out there for all the world to see (should the world go out of its way to find my little corner of unreserve…), to try new things.  It has been a fantastic year, but these successes can be measured only on my peculiar scale.

Abrupt subject change: I’m all about genre fiction!  To be honest, I think all fiction can easily be categorized as genre fiction of some sort or other.  I know folk have a strong inclination to distinguish literary fiction from the sordid genre type, but this inclination seems like misplaced snobbery to me.  All fiction is the work of scribbling human hands to explain some part of the human experience.  Maybe that explanation comes in the form of alien planets or vampire stalkers or amorous dukes and barmaids or neurotic narrators recounting their entire misspent lives; the connecting thread running through each of those stories is the humanity of their authors.  (In case you’re curious, I did just lump Children of the MindTwilightAny Duchess Will Do, and In Search of Lost Time into one category, Aristotle be damned.)

Some authors undoubtedly write better than others, some come closer to achieving a real art, some have more skill at using the lies of story and narrative to tell a truth about who we are as humans, but when we assign categories to writers, we hobble ourselves as readers and limit the artistic reach of those writers.  (We also inflate the egos of those writers and critics fortunate enough to be the gatekeepers of literary quality.)

I suppose I should scramble down from my soap box now and talk about the kind of stories I most want to read.

I’ve always been a sucker for a good story.  When I was in elementary school and junior high, I read whatever I could get my hands on: library books, school books, my mother’s books, etc.  I didn’t precisely have a favorite genre because I was just obsessed with the written word and all the knowledge it contained.  The first book I read that truly took my breath away was Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming.  In junior high, I discovered fantasy books, and I read The Hobbit and tried to read The Lord of the Rings (I didn’t succeed in reading it until I was 20 and had achieved something like patience); I read Terry Brooks and Piers Anthony, and a bunch of truly terrible Dragonlance books.  Then I read Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series (books 1-4) and W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neil Gear’s The First North Americans Series.  Then I read Les Miserables and discovered that what I liked most in all those stories I’d read was any inkling of the redemptive power of love.  Strange as it might be, it was a short skip for me from Les Miserables to romance novels, because that’s where all the love stories hide.

These days, I read romance novels almost exclusively.  Some of them are terrible, and some of them are incandescently wonderful.  I highly recommend each of the following.