Just today a colleague at work told me to tell her what to read. Not only is this pretty much my favorite topic of conversation, it’s one area where I always have the answers. And today we give you our “what to read” answers. It’ our annual gush fest, when we only say nice things and talk about books we loved most this year. Our reviewers (mostly) pick one book and a few runners up – the best of our collective reading year. Theoretically, you can cram a few in before our annual poll closes (it helps if you are a speed reader with a lot of time on your hands – if that’s not you, then maybe you can just find a new favorite that you might have overlooked). We tended toward historicals this year (and even have something of a clear winner at three votes), but you’ll also find YA, NA, M/M, and paranormals. Here are our staff picks in their own words. Happy Reading…and hopefully, voting!)
Anne: One Week Girlfriend by Monica Murphy (a new adult book published by Random House). I was sort of … glancing through it… in the B&N to see whether I would like it. I sort of … glanced through … it to find out his big secret and suddenly realized I had read most of the book. Including the end. Whoops. So with a guilty blush, I bought the Nook Book and the sequel minutes later, and I’m reading it more carefully now.
Pat: Well, since I read a lot of gay romance last year, who will be surprised that my favorite books are m/m romances? My favorite was Covet Thy Neighbor by L. A. Witt not only because of all the usual criteria (characters, plot, theme, and the rest) but also because it discussed religion and belief in God in the context of homosexuality. There’s a wonderful scene in it where a trans boy-girl talks to the gay atheist tattoo artist that’s heartbreaking.
My close seconds are Something Like Autumn by Jay Bell and Beyond Duty by SJD Peterson. I’d read the Something Like series and was eagerly awaiting Autumn, so I saved it for the overseas flight when we went to visit our daughter in Rome. I found myself sobbing across the Atlantic with my husband on one side laughing at me (my own fault for crying he said since I knew what the series was about) and a stranger who kept moving away from me on the other. In retrospect, it was funny, I think.
Beyond Duty is a thought-provoking look at two career soldiers who retire just as Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell is revoked. They’re young, fit, and confused about where to go from here. Since part of my extended family spent their lives in the military, the thoughts and decisions the book’s characters have to make resounded with me.
(After years of reading romances in which the most pressing issue is whom to marry, it was a refreshing year to read romances in which authors were tackling some heavy-duty contemporary issues.)
Melanie: This was really hard – my best book for 2013 was Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (possibly because I haven’t read Eleanor and Park yet!). I really connected with Cath, awkward and a little out of place and starting college, and her difficulty relating to people around her. And her budding romance with Levi is adorable. My runner up was Game by Barry Lyga, his sequel to I hunt Killers. Lyga is great at writing suspense and keeping the tension high without feeling overdramatic. And each time I finish his books, I am left wanting more. Which is great. And horrible, but great. I can’t wait for the next one to come out.
Jenna: My best book of 2013 was Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. While not an easy read – I think I cried during most of it! – the romance told in this story was so delicate and gut-wrenchingly real, the story haunted me for days after I’d finished reading it. All of my indicators for a true keeper were present. I couldn’t put it down. The characters jumped off the page. While not a traditional happy-ever-after ending, I was still left feeling hopeful. And I can easily and happily recommend it to anyone as a fantastic example of a YA novel that will appeal to adults as well as young adults.
Haley: Mine would have to be World After by Susan Ee. It is the second book in the Penryn and the End of Days series. So far, both books have been action packed and the romance is so poignant. The premise is that the angel Gabriel came to earth and the humans shot at him, as a result, the angels have launched a full-on attack against the humans. This has caused a type of apocalypse and now the modern world is in a state of upheaval. Penryn is a teenager who is trying to help her younger sister and mother survive. Her mother is highly, mentally unstable and her younger sister is paralyzed so Penryn takes over as the head of the family. When they stumble into a fight between some of the angels, the younger sister is taken and Penryn ends up pairing with a wounded angel to try and retrieve her. Book two continues her attempts to reunite her family and help the wounded angel, Raffe, reclaim his place with the angels.
I particularly liked this series because Penryn is just a normal girl thrown into the most extreme of circumstances and manages to be a pretty tough chick. There’s no “insta-love” like so many YA paranormal romances. In fact, Penryn and Raffe are very sarcastic and sometimes downright antagonistic to each other. I love all of the characters in this book. Penryn is so tough and able, despite how challenging things become. Raffe is both snarky and a warrior. Penryn’s mother is fascinating in the most horrible way. Ee really takes you for a ride with non-stop action and moments that are downright gruesome and scary. This definitely falls on the darker side as far as YA books are concerned but it is so worth it.
Cindy: My best book of 2013 is Heart of Obsidian by Nalini Singh. Ms Singh can be hit or miss with me but the story of an extremely dangerous man (trying not to put spoilers here) and a girl/young woman who touched a part of him he didn’t know he had hit almost every note perfectly. I liked that this particular story was more about just two people and how they do and don’t heal in a world that has done them so much harm. I appreciated the simplicity of the story and in the end, the story had to be told that way to remain true to the male character. I also appreciated that love was neither character’s cure all. Their ability to do very bad things was not minimized by the author and yes, there is a HEA but by my understanding there is a catch.
Dabney: Uncommon Passion gets my vote for best romance of 2013.
I read the book in July and since then have probably reread it five times. Every time it blows me away. Ms. Calhoun’s stories often have a dark core but though there is grief in Uncommon Passion, the novel is unashamedly joyous.
The heroine, Rachel, a young woman who has left the fundamentalist community she was raised in order to live a life without soul crushing limits, creates happiness, both in the life of the troubled cop, Ben, with whom she falls in love, and in the lives of those lucky enough to read this book. Rachel is such an indelible character it would’ve been easy for her to be more interesting than Ben. And she would be were Ben not hot as hell and entrancingly remote. His struggle to push past the brittle facade he donned years ago is moving and compelling.
Everything about this book works for me.
Uncommon Passion is the sexiest book I read in 2013; the love scenes are riveting and vividly erotic. Ben’s anger, directed at his father and at himself, is heartbreaking and infuriating. Rachel is perfect for Ben which surprises the two of them and the reader. The novel is beautifully plotted and gorgeously written.
Ms. Calhoun’s work becomes better with each story she writes; Uncommon Passion is her best yet.
Lee: My best book of the year is Let It Be Me by Kate Noble. Set mostly in Venice, it’s about a girl following her dream of being a concert pianist but having to deal with her mother trying to marry her off. Even though I have been to Venice, after reading this book I want to go back to, and listen to classical music while there. I also really loved Her Hesitant Heart by Carla Kelly, which follows a down on her luck young woman on her way out west to take up a position as a teacher in Wyoming. If you’ve read Ms. Kelly before, you know she can write to tear at the reader’s heartstrings and she does it again in this book. And as others have mentioned, The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley also is a lovely book. My favorite character was Anna. What an adventurous life she had.
Mary: Oh I hate when I can only choose one, so thanks for giving us a little leeway. My best book(s) of the year are Darius: Lord of Pleasure by Grace Burrowes and What a Lady Needs by Kasey Michaels. In Darius, the hero is a sort of gigolo who hires out his services just short of sexual intercourse. He has taken this path after being cut off by his father. Another aristocrat has a platonic marriage with his wife and therefore no heir. He is also dying and wants to protect his wife from her vulture of a former stepfather before he dies. He contracts with Darius to impregnate his wife. I usually hate adultery stories, but this one is done so well and is so poignant, that I could not help but love both the hero and heroine. In What a Lady Needs, I loved this character driven romance between Katherine Redgrave and Simon Ravenbill as they try to sort out the treasonous plots that both families are caught up in. There is a lot of genuine humor in this book that makes you want to hang out with the principal characters.
Other books that ALMOST made it:
Duke of Midnight by Elizabeth Hoyt
Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait by Grace Burrowes
Into the Light by Ellen O’Connell
Her Hesitant Heart by Carla Kelly
Blythe: This was a harder year for me because it just wasn’t the best reading year in general. I can’t help wishing I’d read the newest Kearsley, Kelly, Willig, and Thomas – but I didn’t get to any of those. In fact, I read more general fiction this year than usual, so among my favorites I’d include The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and the surprise J.K. Rowling book, The Cuckoo’s Calling.
My romance reading was just a little lackluster, with one notable exception. So my best romance of the year is Sweet Revenge by Zoe Archer. It’s a well-written book with characters who are uncommon precisely because they are common. The hero is an escaped convict bent in revenge (hence the title), and the heroine is a governess whose parents are missionaries. Most other new-to-me authors I tried in 2013 felt like so many rehashes of all that has come before. And I am at a stage in my reading career where the unusual and different are very appealing. If you’ve missed Sweet Revenge, try to squeeze it in.
Lynn: My book of the year was The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. I loved The Winter Sea, the book which preceded it, but the multi-layered plot and the beautiful, sweeping romance in Firebird just blew me away.
For runners-up, I would choose – The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin – I just adored this book! The setting, the characters, the plotting and the romance…this one just really worked for me. Also, I enjoyed seeing a time and place I know very little about come to life for me. The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig – This book isn’t a standard, “follow the rules” genre romance, but the end result certainly is romantic. Seeing both the past and present romances unfold as well as how the actions of past generations affect the current one made this a very good read indeed.
Maggie: My favorite romance of the year was The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. Kearsley’s trademark lyrical writing, haunting story line and intense romance permeate this book and make it among the best reads of 2013, not just the best romance. Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel would be the runner up. A breathtaking look at India during a unique period of its history it is also an incredible sweet romance between two intriguing characters. Stealing the Preacher by Karen Witemeyer was a wonderfully humorous Inspirational that had a heartfelt romance at its core.
LinnieGayl: My book of the year, and the one that will dominate my AAR Annual Reader Poll ballot is Lauren Willig’s The Passion of the Purple Plumeria. I was nervous when I first heard about this book, couldn’t imagine the “older” Miss Gwen as a heroine. But both the book, and Miss Gwen, are spectacular. I listened to it as an audio book and the minute I finished went back and listened to the last chapters many more times. Miss Gwen has so much more depth than I ever imagined. And I still smile over the final reveal of Plumeria. In second place for me is The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig (yes, it was a Lauren Willig year for me). I was less than enthusiastic about a standalone that did not feature The Pink Carnation. But I was quickly captured both by the historical story and by the “current” 1999 story. It’s a big, sweeping tale taking place over decades and across continents. I also listened to this in audio and will definitely listen again.
Rike: The 2013 book I liked best, hands down, was The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig. I love older heroines and adored what Willig did with Gwen, who does start out as a bit of a caricature at the beginning of the series. The Passion of the Purple Plumeria is both funny and heart-breaking (the passages in which Gwen needs to rethink her relationship with Jane!).The first of my runners-up is New Life by Bonnie Dee. This novel’s hero is mentally handicapped after an accident, and the romance deals with some very difficult-to-solve situations, and does not cop out by offering easy solutions. Very gritty and emotional!
My second runner-up is also a contemporary, but the complete opposite in subject and tone: An Invitation to Sin by Sarah Morgan. This is a sparkling, charming romance which made me smile, but at the same time it’s not superficial, even though it is set among Sicilian millionaires.
Heather: My favorite books of 2013: The Luckiest Lady in London – Sherry Thomas excels at the unconventional, going far beyond standard Regency fare. The Luckiest Lady in London is no exception with its less-than-beautiful heroine and hero who decides she is worth pursuing. Magic Rises by Ilona Andrews – Just when I believe the Kate Daniels series has peaked, that the next book cannot possibly surpass the last, the authors raise the bar and deliver a story that takes my breath away. In Magic Rises the stakes are higher, the villains scarier, and the emotional impact greater than any Kate Daniels book that has preceded it. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – Don‘t let the Young Adult designation fool you. This is a story of misfits to which readers of any age (and especially those of us in our late 30s/early 40s) may relate and enjoy. As Eleanor, with her unsettled home life, and Park, who has the perfect family, bond over punk rock and being targeted by school bullies, the reader falls in love with them as well. At the end my heart soared and I felt a strong desire to blast The Ramones for all the world to hear.
Alexandra: I’ve been putting off making my decision for a while, but I feel like I really have to go with Sherry Thomas’ The Luckiest Lady in London. I loved Felix and Louisa, as I always love her characters. I don’t quite know what made this book so amazing – perhaps it was how believable I found the characters and their emotions to be. Too often I’ve felt bored and apathetic while reading a book where one of the main characters had a traumatic childhood. It’s not that I’m unfeeling (I hope!) but rather that the tale seems a little over-dramatic or just doesn’t hit me right. I believed in Felix and Louisa – they were real, their emotions were real, their less-than-perfect lives made me hurt for them.
There were, of course, many other books I read and fell in love with this year. However, the only one of all of them that I really considered choosing as my favorite was The Turncoat: Renegades of the Revolution by Donna Thorland. It was her debut novel, I believe, and I just fell head over heels for it. Drama, good characters, and the American Revolution–what more can you ask for in a book?
Caz: It’s a tough choice, but if I’ve got to pick one, I’m going for The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas. As is always the case with ST, the writing is beautiful and her two protagonists were utterly captivating. Louisa isn’t beautiful and Felix is a scoundrel underneath his carefully cultivated persona of The Ideal Gentleman, but together they peel away the layers of preconceptions about themselves and each other. It’s a terrific read and I couldn’t put it down.
Runners up: The Countess Conspiracy (Courtney Milan). It’s beautifully written, the emotions just jumped off the page and all the detail about the scientific work and discoveries being made by the characters was fascinating. Sebastian and Violet are incredibly well-drawn and multi-layered characters who absolutely and completely belong together and my heart broke for them several times! Once Upon a Tartan by Grace Burrowes – Tye is a beautiful and complex hero with a love of language (and naughty words to boot!) who completely steals the show in this story of a man who has always put others first who discovers that sometimes the best way to help people is to stand up for your own needs. The Boleyn Deceit by Laura Andersen – Second book in her Boleyn Trilogy, this story continues the story of the “alternative” tudor timeline in which Henry VIII had a son by Anne Boleyn. His minority over, William is now king in his own right. But he’s also his father’s son – and when he decides he’s in love with a girl he’s known all his life (who is in love with his best friend and closest advisor) the stakes are raised considerably. Politics, history and a star-crossed romance – I can’t wait for book 3!
I’d better hit send now, because this list will probably have changed in an hour or so! We have only days left in our annual poll, which closes January 26 at midnight. We’ll soon find out whether our favorites are your favorites. But feel free to comment and let us know how your reading year was. And if you haven’t voted yet, hop to it!