The Best of 2015: Lynn’s List

othersideofmidnight 2015 was a strange reading year for me. For starters, I have a toddler, so I read more picture books than usual. Going back over books I read for myself, I did read a good number of current year releases in 2015 but an unusual quantity of them were C-grade reads. Most of my highest grades for the year were for older books that had been marinating in my TBR pile for a while. There were definitely 2015 gems to be found, though, and here are mine:

The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James – I’ll admit that I picked this book up solely because St. James wrote it. Stories about spiritualists/mediums tend not to grab me, but this one was just irresistible. It’s a creepy and very well written mystery with more than a touch of romance to it. Highly recommend.

Heat Exchange by Shannon Stacey – Wowza. This book pretty much knocked my socks off. I gave this book a DIK review here on AAR, and it was easily my favorite contemporary romance of the year. This romance between a Boston firefighter and his mentor’s daughter is both sweet and hot at the same time. And what really sets this book apart? Not only does Stacey give us well-crafted characters, but she does a fabulous job of making their frends, family and world come to life.

desperatefortune A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley – Oh, this was such a fun read! Things get moving slowly, but as all the pieces start to pull together, the reader starts to fall into an amazing world. As many readers are aware, Kearsley often uses timeslips in her books, so we have both a modern-day storyline and an historical one. In this case, the modern-day storyline focuses on a young woman with Asperger’s who is skilled in decoding. She uses this skill to untangle a coded diary – and along the way, falls into a wonderful romance. And the historical story? Set in 1730s Europe, it’s a Jacobite adventure packed with action and emotion. Good stuff.

Pursued by the Rogue by Kelly Hunter – Hunter writes reliably good category romance, and this book is no exception. This “second chance at love” story featuring a heroine with a devastating secret and her high school love is a treat. And then there’s the fact that the hero is the older brother of one of her best friends. For a relatively short novel, this book features complications galore, and ending is truly satisfying.


beyondalldreamsBeyond All Dreams by Elizabeth Camden – Camden is fast becoming one of my few auto-buys in the inspirational subgenre. Her stories often give windows into interesting little niches in American history. I also love that Camden tends to feature strong, independent heroines. Anna O’Brien in this book is no exception. As an orphan, Anna must support herself, and throughout this novel, she works for the Library of Congress as it prepares to move from the Capitol to its new home. The story covers Anna’s adventures working with a dashing young senator as they try to solve a mystery Anna has uncovered in her records.

Beyond Limits by Laura Griffin – I’ve said it many times before, but Laura Griffin is one of those authors who keeps getting stronger and stronger. This romantic suspense novel featuring a Navy SEAL and an FBI agent is unusually well-plotted. It’s an action-packed thriller of a book, and the author keeps the tension going throughout the book. And unlike many action-packed thrillers I’ve read, the romance didn’t feel like an undeveloped afterthought.

twoweekturnaround Two Week Turnaround by Geneva Lee – This is one of those books that falls somewhat outside what I usually read but it was a refreshing change of pace. Set in the glitz and glamour circles of Hollywood, this story features both a steamy romance and an interesting backstory. The heroine in this novella may be trying to turn the hero’s life around, but as it turns out, they both find themselves reevaluating their lives and finding a new path.

Whispers at Court by Blythe Gifford – As I said in the opening line of my review of this book, “It’s always a pleasure to read a historical that truly feels, well…historical.” This novel, set during the Hundred Years’ War, definitely had a real sense of time and place. I enjoyed the characters and their romance, and it was a pleasure to spend a little time lingering in their world.

leadmenot Lead Me Not by Ann Gallagher – I think it’s safe to say that there aren’t too many m/m inspirational romances out there. However, this tale, which explores the intersection of orientation and religious belief, made quite an impression on me even if it wasn’t a perfect DIK read. This romance between a bartender and a fundamentalist preacher forced to re-examine his beliefs made me think and the best parts of it were pretty unforgettable.


Intensive Care by Nicki Edwards – This one gets my vote for favorite debut of the year. This story of a nurse starting over at a hospital in a rural Australian outpost made me smile. At its best, it’s a sunny, feel-good story with a real sweetness to it.

And there you have it. My list this year is fairly eclectic, and I was thrilled to find some great treats in 2015. I hope that you did, too. I’d love to hear what books made your 2015 special, so please let me know below. And I hope we all read our way through a wonderful 2016!

- Lynn Spencer

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The Best of 2015: Alexandra’s List

When I chose Dark Horse by Michelle Diener as my favorite romance of 2015, I mentioned that I often have trouble thinking back to books I loved early in the year when choosing these things. Today when I sat down to pick my overall top books of 2015, I made a conscious effort to search through some of our 2015 reviews and my own book release calendar in order to remember all of the books I enjoyed this year. Here are the top ten of my favorites, in no particular order:

Dark Horse by Michelle Diener. As I said in our earlier blog, for me this book had everything. Rose MacKenzie is amazing as the first human to enter alien society. Abruptly abducted from Earth, held captive, and then suddenly free with the human-like Grih, she remains so calm and reasonable. So many adventures, so many awesome characters…yes, this was definitely my favorite book of 2015.

The Legend of Lyon Redmond by Julie Anne Long. Who wasn’t eagerly awaiting this book? For me, it was one of the highlights of 2015, when I got the chance to finally sit down with Olivia and Lyon, after anticipating it for so long. Ms. Long did a wonderful job of fleshing out the epic romance that’s been hinted at throughout the series, showing how their Romeo and Juliet-like affair began and finally ended, giving Lyon and Olivia a much-deserved HEA.

Radiance by Grace Draven. Maggie’s DIK review had me rushing to my tablet to get myself an eBook copy, which I promptly devoured in a matter of hours. I adored this fantasy romance showing how two people who initially repulsed each other could end up in love. Ildiko and Brishen, two royals of completely different species forced into an arranged marriage, more than make the best of the situation.

Archangel’s Enigma by Nalini Singh. I’ve loved most of Nalini Singh’s books since I began reading them, so it wasn’t surprising to find this was one of my highlights of 2015. The world of archangelic politics grows ever more complex in this latest book, against the backdrop of charming Naasir finally finding himself a mate. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s read some of the books in the series.

The Game Plan by Kristen Callihan. I normally try to avoid getting sucked into books during the Christmas holiday, since I’d rather spend my time with family. But, in a rare moment of free time, I decided to start this New Adult trilogy by Kristan Callihan (beginning with The Hook Up and The Friend Zone). I was impressed by the realistic mindset of the characters, as well as their humor, and completely lost myself in their world for a few days.

Uprooted by Naomi Novak. There was a period within the last few months where I found myself desperate to read sci-fi or fantasy romance. Uprooted was the perfect book for that moment—the enchanting tale of a witch and a Dragon and an enchanted forest kept me glued to my tablet when I should have been studying or getting other work done.

Born of Defiance by Sherrilyn Kenyon. This book and its hero hooked me from the moment I opened it. Talyn Batur has so much going against him, most of it due to his low rank in society. In spite of that he’s managed to maintain a good outlook, and when he decides to find himself the closest thing he can get to a girlfriend or wife, it’s obvious that any girl would be lucky to have him. Talyn’s is the ultimate underdog sort of story.

Once Upon a Marquess by Courtney Milan. I’ve always loved Courtney Milan’s books, and this was no exception. She somehow manages to subtly pull the strings of a story together over the course of the book, until before you know it, two people like Judith Worth and Christian Trent, who have a very difficult history between them, are suddenly in love. It happens so naturally, it’s like magic.

The One in My Heart by Sherry Thomas. I was a little uncertain when I set out to read Ms. Thomas’ first contemporary romance, but given her success in other arenas, I had faith she’d do well. She did spectacular—Bennett and Evangeline are some of my favorite characters of 2015. They’ve both got a passel of insecurities that they drag along and try to work out throughout this book. Bennett’s trying to return to his family, Evangeline is struggling with letting herself be vulnerable…apart, they’d have a difficult time, but together they make a beautifully crafted romance.

The Immortal Heights by Sherry Thomas. When I read the first book in this trilogy, The Burning Sky, I was both devastated and overjoyed to realize it would have two other books following it. On the one hand, I don’t like to be left hanging, but on the other I knew the day would eventually come where I would sit down and rave about the fact that I’ve enjoyed three amazing YA fantasy books about Iolanthe and Titus. Somehow, The Immortal Heights lived up to/surpassed its predecessors and brought a fitting end to this marvelous trilogy.

Looking back at this list, it seems to sort of track my reading moods throughout 2015. More than half of these books are set in some sort of fantasy/sci-fi world. Although I read plenty of historicals and contemporary romances, I think they simply didn’t quite catch my eye the way the fantasy books did. Last year I seem to recall many of my favorites being historical. Do you go through the same changes in reading moods?

 

Alexandra

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The Best of 2015: B.J.’s List

A DIK for me is a novel that captures me to the detriment of real life events. It will have characters I am intrigued by and like. The romance will be at the centre, but there will a fascinating storyline too. I like sex in my romances, but it should not be gratuitous. I want to sigh or gulp at the emotion, and thrill at the beauty of the writing. This book will leave me with a ‘hangover’, and have me looking for further titles by the author, or hanging on for their next release. For me DIKs this year include -

A Fashionable Indulgence – KJ Charles

I had a simply delicious time reading A Fashionable Indulgence. This title managed to be the first in a series without the usual inherent difficulties. There are many characters to introduce, but all were interesting, played integral parts in the main storyline, and had well developed personalities.

I empathised with the nervous, jittery emotions of men who loved men during the Regency period in England. I loved the romance and emotions of Harry and Julius discovering love. I felt the outrage of those hurt by the class system, and the awfulness of ‘Peterloo’ massacre. In short, I immersed myself in a different age and enjoyed every moment there. A classy historical romance. 

I have now read #2 in this series, Seditious Affair and it is every bit as good!

Waiting for the Flood – Alexis Hall

This beautifully crafted novella is calmly reflective, and feels very personal and authentic. The breakdown of Edwin Tully’s relationship with Marcus has left him both stuttering in his speech, and his inability to move on with his life. The flood of the title is both literal and metaphorical – bringing hope of salvation to Edwin in the gentle form of Adam Dacre. The paranoias of Edwin are, I suspect, representative of those fears and thoughts that many of us keep hidden away. Along with some lovely humorous moments, this novella sensitively covers; loneliness, break up, low self-esteem, moving on, kindness of strangers, love and fear of loss. It ripples over the hard issues of a lived life, in a short, gentle, highly satisfying work.

The Other Country #4 The Bruise Black Sky #5 Death’s Ink-Black Shadow #6 and Enduring Night #7 – series More Heat Than The Sun - John Wiltshire

These titles are from a series of books, concerning two complex characters, Nikolas and Ben. Nikolas a super intelligent surviving twin, also Danish/Russian spy, who has memories and regrets in his head that no one would wish for – and Ben, English ex-soldier, ex SAS – straightforward army and adorable. On paper it is the antithesis of anything I normally read, BUT the series is extremely well written, never bores and has more twists than you could shake a stick at… John Wiltshire knows how to write in a way that requires you to keep reading no matter what. He can make you laugh and grin in one line then near to tears in the next. Considering that this series is the story of two men – whose passion for each other is ‘epic’ – each plotline remains intriguing and builds up layer upon layer over the series. There are secondary characters you really care for, but they never overshadow the main protagonists, except for their adorable dog, Radulf.  

The four I have mentioned here all came out in 2015 and I could not favour one over the others. I have read the whole series and I would drop everything to get my hands on #8. To me John Wiltshire’s books are unique, in that I have never before remained wholly invested in a series for this long.

Focus on Me – Megan Erickson 

Colin feels he is a failure at life until, one day, he gives the stunning and stranded Riley a lift. From this point on, the lives of these young men change, forever. This is a road trip with heart and soul. The characterisations in Focus on Me are superb, Riley is not just an illness, Colin not just a worried new lover – they are three-dimensional human beings. A story of love, mental illness and its wider effects, the author writes this tale with delicacy and sensitivity for the subject. Even the secondary characters, with little page time, are constructed will care. Focus on Me is a romance set around difficult issues, but it is never maudlin or miserable. Colin is an empathic, loveable character and his commitment to Riley, is full of heart and joy. What elevates this novel from the norm is the final chapter. It is both HEA and HFN. If the author had made it a pat happy ever after – the novel would have been ruined. However, Megan Erickson carries her understanding of her characters and their situation through to the lovely end.

For Real  - Alexis Hall

I love this story of a May to December relationship. For Real revolves around two characters Laurence Dalziel, a thirty seven year old trauma consultant, and Oxford man through and through, and Toby. Toby is nineteen, intelligent, neglected by artist parents, and adored by his ‘Granddad’. Their route to each other initially, is the need /desire in one to submit through BDSM and the desire in the other to Dominate through BDSM. In both, this desire is restricted mainly to sex.

Because he is Alexis Hall, he reverses the obvious dynamic, and gives us an adorable, fearless teenage Dom with acne and a self-possessed, wealthy older submissive. The writing, is exquisite and the author includes pithy, perceptive observations on life, which almost had me gasping at the truth behind them. The romance is real and the BDSM elements are an integral part of it. This D/s couple don’t need the artifice of ‘equipment’ – life provides all that is required to satisfy this couples’ desires. There is a scene involving a lemon meringue pie that invokes both the enjoyment of a very sexy scene, and a need for the recipe. For Real created such strong emotion in me that I couldn’t cry, until I reached one particular passage near the end – then I sobbed. Beautiful, sexy, funny and romantic.

Last Line 2 – Harper Fox

Last Line 2 definitely makes my list. This novel is the long awaited sequel to (of course) Last Line, but these novels are in effect, two parts of a much bigger story. This is such a very beautiful, complex novel; I don’t really want to say too much about the plotline (if I could!) as it needs to unwind with a particular order to the exposition. The writing is extraordinary, and wraps you in a narrative that holds you in its thrall until the end. Plot and character drive Fox’s novels, but she never fails to enrich her prose with almost casual bits of linguistic beauty.

Despite the fact that this novel involves espionage and cold war politics, it astounded me with its message and metaphorical essence. Much of the story is set in and around Glastonbury Tor, with such a setting, the magic of pagan beliefs, and the cycle of life and the elements –feel visceral and real. Whilst romance seems to be a side issue at first, when the novel gets into its stride, romance shines through the entire plot.

Sutphin Boulevard – Santino Hassell

If I had written a precis straight after reading Sutphin Boulevard – it wouldn’t have made much sense, just ‘omg’, ‘drool’ and ‘rawr’ etc. – very un-British.

Santino Hassell writes gritty, modern drama, which makes for intense romances.  His believable, fluid writing style tends to make what you read immediately after, pale by comparison. I had felt a little jaded about the sex scenes in some m/m romances, but Sutphin Boulevard has definitely been the read to re-light my fire!  Early in the book is one of the hottest menage sex scenes I have read, and this one night sets events in motion that change the lives of all the participants. 

The MCs are two friends forever, Michael (Mikey) Rodriguez, and Nunzio (Zio) Medici – two very real, urban and adorable male leads. Michael is from a dysfunctional family and Nunzio’s family ceased to function for him completely, a long time ago. They have grown up together and been everything to each other – except lovers. Both have physically ‘escaped’ the area where they grew up, through education and now teach at the same school. However, they haven’t mentally escaped the past, and scars left by their early lives in Queens continue to blight their lives. Their childhood home is served by the subway train stopping at Sutphin Boulevard

BJ Jansen

 

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TBR Challenge 2016 – Short and Sweet

It’s TBR Challenge time, and yes, Caz and I are in again! This month’s theme involves short romances, so we’ve been urged to pull out novellas, short stories and category romances. My choice this month was pretty easy. When books get buzzed about, I sometimes get curious and buy them – and then procrastinate on my reading.

Such was the case with Mary Ann Rivers’ 2013 novella The Story Guy. Everybody and their dog went into raptures over this story on Twitter and the setup was just quirky enough that it caught my eye. Having read it, I can now say that this story indeed merits all that buzz. There’s a lot of meaty stuff in here that one could discuss, even though one of the plot points bothered me enough that I can’t quite justify giving this novella a DIK review.

As the story begins, we are introduced to Carrie West, a relatively happy thirtysomething librarian. She likes reading the personals for snorts and giggles, and one in particular catches her eye. A man is looking for someone to meet him in the park on Wednesday afternoons, just for kissing. Intrigued, Carrie answers and finds herself meeting a mysterious – and gorgeous – man in the park for kisses. And they are amazing kisses.

We learn that the man in question is attorney Brian Newburgh. And the reason for the weird setup? Well, Brian has some baggage that he’s convinced will make him relationship-ineligible. As one of Carrie’s friends says, he’s a “story guy.” He’s not planning to share that life story with Carrie either, so she(and the reader) are kept in the dark for much of the story. Continue reading

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The AAR Annual Readers’ Poll

The annual AAR Reader Poll is open!

We’re pleased to announce, for the 20th year in a row, the AAR Annual Reader Poll is now open! We hope you will help us take a look back to find the best romance books the year 2015 had to offer.

The AAR Annual Reader Poll began with the best romances of 1996, and ever since then, readers have used the poll results to guide them to some of the best romances published in the past year. But for the poll to be helpful, and truly represent as many AAR readers as possible, we need you to vote! Many readers use various guides to fill out their ballots. Some AAR readers keep spreadsheets of their reading year, while others utilize such online sites as Goodreads for their records, making it relatively easy to fill out a ballot. If you haven’t kept a spreadsheet or reading chart (and there are just as many readers who don’t), you can use the Power Search function at AAR to search for reviews from the 2015 reading year. In Power Search you can search by genre, reviewer, year published, grade, and other categories which should help you in filling out your ballot.

In recent weeks AAR has published a number of posts that offer some of our favorite romances of 2015, including the favorite 2015 romances of the entire staff and their favorite audio listens, so make sure to check out the AAR blog for ideas as well.
The poll will be open for just two weeks starting today, Monday January 18th and will close at 12:00 midnight U.S. Eastern Standard Time on Sunday, January 31th, 2016. We encourage all of our AAR readers to participate in this poll. Once again, the poll will be hosted offsite at surveymonkey.com (see the end of this post for the actual link).
There are now 25 different categories listed on the ballot but remember, for your ballot to be valid, you only have to vote in a minimum of six (6) categories. The average AAR reader votes in about 10 categories but some readers vote in all categories.

Almost every year we make changes to the poll and this year is no different. The romance genre has an ebb and flow that opens up new categories and leaves behind themes that were once popular. This year, after some debate, we decided not to drop any categories from the ballot, although a few — Best Category Romance, Best Young Adult Romance, and Best New Adult Romance – had a relatively low vote tally last year. Instead, we decided to add back in, for another try, the Worst Romance you read. We’ve also added a comment box at the end for you to make suggestions for future categories, or to offer your thoughts on the poll.

In the past, many people have posted on the boards that the winners don’t reflect their favorites. Keep in mind that this poll can only be successful with your participation, so please take the time to vote to make sure your favorites get tallied!

Look for the results to be posted at AAR in February. Ready to vote?

Click here.

LeeB. and LinnieGayl

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Mercy Brown Talks about Boys, Bands, and Dreaming Big

Mercy Brown’s debut novel Loud Is How I Love You comes out January 19th. It’s a New Adult romance set in the 1990′s New Jersey indie music scene. Dabney gave it a DIK review.

Ms. Brown is giving away three e-copies of the book to three lucky readers. Leave a comment below and you’ll be entered in a drawing for a copy of Loud Is How I Love You.


 

Dabney: I loved the many acknowledgements in your book.

 Mercy: Well, Loud Is How I Love You is based (very loosely) on my real life. There are so many people who turn up in this story, and even more who were instrumental behind the scenes in making it all happen, from my Dad buying me my first guitar when I was a kid, to Alex (my husband), who lived a lot of these music adventures with me, to the music scene where it all happened, and my friend Lo who kept on me until I’d finished a draft of an original novel and got it sold. And I’m an Italian-American Jersey girl, so I’m always here to tell you and everyone I ever meet how I much I love you.

Dabney: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to write this book.

Mercy: I was an indie rock front girl in New Brunswick in the 90s and early 00s. I fell in love with my guitarist, and definitely boned him when it was against the rules. But I’m married to him and we have twin boys now, so it all worked out. Sometimes, you just have to realize the rules are bullshit and your future husband is staring you in the face.

When our kids were first born, playing in a loud indie rock band together became pretty difficult, so I turned to writing as a creative outlet instead. The first novel-length work I ever completed was actually an epic Twilight fan fiction (and by “epic” I simply mean the length of the thing). Writing that and joining the fan fiction community was almost as fun as being in a band, and a lot more manageable with small kids and a job. After I finished that, I wrote a Young Adult fantasy manuscript that was (and still is) in need of a serious overhaul. I decided to take a break to write a short story for this Simon and Schuster New Adult contest, and when I did, most of Loud just popped right out of me. I wrote 28,000 words of it in a weekend (and the word limit was 25,000 words). I sent the short story to my friend Lo (Lauren of Christina Lauren), and she encouraged me to turn it into a novel. I finished the entire first draft in about three weeks! (And my agent is still waiting for me to send him the cleaned up copy of the YA fantasy manuscript… he’s a patient guy.)

Dabney: Your book begins with the line “Don’t fuck anyone in the band.” You say this is rule number one of being in a band. One of my best friends (and the woman who introduced me to my husband) has been a musician for over forty years. She says there is no group with the greater potential for drama than a band.

Mercy: Oh God, is that true. So. Much. DRAMA. Especially when you’re boning your guitarist, and then living with him, and then owning real estate together–you get the idea. But that said, every band is different. In some bands, the members are best friends and do everything together and in other bands, they all hate each other. And then in others, it’s a mixture of people who are simply friendly or who just collaborate because musically, they’re a good match, but socially they don’t really hang out.

But drama and bands go hand in hand because creating music together is a very tricky and intimate pursuit where members have to be vulnerable to one another. And sometimes, your ideas suck and your bandmates are going to have to tell you that, and that creates tension. But the flip side of that is the payoff you get from working so closely with other people you share a common dream with. Good bandmates bring so much to your life–they really do become like family. They’ll go to this other creative, sacred place with you when you’re writing or performing music, but then they’ll also move your couch and water your plants when you fly home to visit your parents. Band mates are there for you in the way that only your closest friends and loved ones are. Well, they usually are your closest friends and loved ones.

Dabney: You write when it comes to bands, people remember the soap opera, not the music. Do you think that’s always the case? What are some examples of that dynamic?

Mercy: I was really thinking about that in terms of those bands who are predominantly a soap opera–not necessarily bands in general. Take a band like Hole, for example, and Courtney Love. Every fan of Nirvana knows Courtney Love. Most people probably know what a circus her life has been. But how many people remember what Hole sounds like? And Live Through This was a decent album, too! Courtney Love is famous for the soap opera–not the music, and she’s not a bad musician. That’s probably the best example I can think of. We definitely had bands around here who were so full of drama, they’d literally brawl on stage. I remember that, but don’t ask me to remember what their music sounded like.

Dabney: You set your book in 1995. Why? What sort of freedoms and limitations did that time give you for your story?

Mercy: I set the book in the 90s because I wanted to take readers to a time before cell phones and the Internet were a part of everyday life. Looking back now, I feel a real sense of adventure and boldness that came from taking a road trip and using a damn atlas to find your way around. Back then, unsigned bands had to go basement to basement, club to club, fan to fan, to build an audience–there was no Tumblr or Bandcamp or Bands in Town. It was a media wilderness, but in hindsight, I feel like we also had all this freedom. You could throw up in a bar and not have someone capture it and make a Vine out of it, you know? Er, not that I did that. The stories of our embarrassing moments would get around, but it wouldn’t be there for your mother to see on Facebook. I sometimes wonder if back then we were more in the moment because we weren’t as self-conscious of how we were going to come across on social media. Did we live differently because we didn’t have the ability to permanently capture every moment on our cell phones? I wonder if we took bigger risks, made bigger fools out of ourselves. Anyway, I wanted to impart what it felt like to come of age in that particular time period simply because it was different and now it feels a little magical to me. I guess I’m sentimental.

Dabney: The band in your book is called Stars on the Floor. Nickname: Soft. Was there ever a real band called Stars on the Floor? ( Because if not, there should be.)

Mercy: Not that I know of. “Stars on the Floor” is just a line a from a song I wrote many years ago. It would make a great band name! Making up band names for Loud was so much easier than naming my bands (or my books) in real life.

Dabney: What do Soft sound like? Is there a video or audio clip that would give a sense of the band’s sound?

Mercy: I’ve put a lot of thought into what Soft sound like, and have considered writing and recording the song Loud Is How I Love You, but I’ve shied away from that because music is very subjective, and I really want readers to hear their own favorite 90s flavored song here.

But not to cop out on this, I will say that to me, Soft has a lot of loud, thick, distorted guitar tones without a lot of fancy lead playing, and female vocals that are sort of Mazzy Star-ish but not quite country. Crushing bass by Cole, and I hear Joey’s drumming as both machine precise and fluid.

In terms of something sort of in the ballpark, I’d say Serpents by Sharon Van Etten comes pretty close to how Soft might sound, even though it’s not a 90s song. Soft definitely have a different guitar tone and more driving rhythm section, but I like how angsty this song is and feels like something Soft would write. (Listen here.) I also have a great story about sleeping on Sharon Van Etten’s floor when she was only 20 and my band played in Murfreesboro, but that’s a story I’ll tell when my next book, Stay Until We Break, launches.

Dabney: Emmy, your heroine, seems like a feminist to me. Do you think she would’ve called herself that?

Mercy: Hell yes. In fact, not only is Emmy a feminist, so are her bandmates Travis, Joey, and Cole and pretty much all her friends in the music scene. Emmy’s mother and her grandmother were card-carrying, button-wearing ERA supporters in the 70s. But here’s the thing–in a college town in New Jersey in 1995, this wasn’t some big, controversial political statement. People would have assumed that a young, educated woman was a feminist because seriously, why wouldn’t she be? What’s not to embrace about respect and equality and equal pay and opportunity for women?

In fact, I have to say that in general, the independent music scene around here was like some sort of feminist utopia. You could go into most shows around here as a young woman and feel perfectly safe and respected. Not the college bars or the frats, mind you. I’m talking about indie rock shows, whether they were at clubs or house parties or basements. That’s because the men in the music scene did not tolerate bullshit from other guys towards the women. If a guy got out of line with a woman at a show, the other guys would drag him out of the bar. Didn’t matter who it was, either. That was the culture. As a woman musician in that scene, I was always treated with as much respect as the men. When I went out to Sam Ash, the guys in the guitar department would treat me like I was clueless and had no idea what I was doing. And my bandmates would pity them as they anticipated my reaction.

Dabney: If you were  going to pick three words to describe Travis what would they be? What would they be for Emmy?

Mercy: Oh, this is so difficult! For Travis, it’s really difficult to pick only three. He’s so many things, you know? But in terms of this story, I’d have to go with loyal, steady, and (infinitely) patient. For Emmy, I’d have to say loud, anxious, and determined.

Dabney: The level of writing this book is awesome for any novel, let alone a debut. Is this the first book you tried to write?

Mercy: I’m going to print that question out and sleep with it under my pillow. Thank you, and no, as I sort of already discussed. But it is the first book I wrote that I felt was in good enough shape to query.

Dabney: I have to ask, are you secretly a Michael Bolton lover like Emmy’s old boyfriend?

Mercy: Hahaha, no.

Dabney: In the book, there’s a band from the New Brunswick scene (where the book is set) that made it big called Ween. Who were you thinking of when you envisioned that band?

Mercy: It’s really the band Ween! They’re on the stoner end of alternative rock, and they are local legends and all around nice guys. Ween are Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman (Dean and Gene Ween). They are actually from New Hope, Pennsylvania, but Ween used to play New Brunswick a lot when they were starting out. Their other bandmates were all from the New Brunswick scene and their regular soundman was the house soundman at the Court Tavern, where we all played all the time, who is also a friend of mine. I agonized a lot over whether to change it to a fake band, but in the end I decided the book was just cooler with Ween in it. And we really did play a big outdoor show with Ween and Juliana Hatfield at Rutgers! But we didn’t have a storm, luckily.

Dabney: Your book catapulted me back to the 90s. The Kinko’s reference alone sent me back to a life before home printers . What do you miss most about the 90s?

Mercy: Jolt Cola. All the time I had before Twitter was invented. Hanging out watching bands every weekend. (And lots of weekdays.) Not being addicted to my phone. The Simpsons. Pinball nights at McCormick’s. Overnight Sensations radio show. My Honda CRX that would run two weeks on a $7 tank of gas. Wide legged pants. The economy.

Dabney: You clearly know your music. You cite sub genres I ‘ve never heard of. What exactly is jangle pop? What’s your favorite kind of music in your life now?

Mercy: I’m definitely a music nerd, but far less of an expert than one might think. My tastes have always been pretty narrow for a musician, but I love what I love very, very much. Fangirl to the extreme. Anyway, jangle pop was a term used to describe bands like the Sundays (I’d forgotten how much I love this song.) basically sort of indie/alterna pop with clean guitar tones and a lot of strumming. I don’t know how much it’s used as a music genre today.

I still love very dark-sounding, heavy guitar-nerd music, quite a lot, and I probably always will. A few of my favorite national bands today are Russian Circles, Failure, Foals, Waters, and a shout out to New Brunswick’s own Screaming Females.

Dabney: In ascending order, what are the top five songs you want played at your memorial service?

Mercy:

This epic Russian Circles song, 1777. It just sounds badass.

Faith by the Cure

Reckoner by Radiohead

Daylight by Failure

and for my boys, Sons of Thunder by High on Fire so that they’ll feel compelled to go forth and rock the world in my honor.

Dabney: If your child wanted to grow up and be a musician, what would you say to her?

Mercy: I would say separate your art from your ability to survive financially. If creating music is what makes your brain and your heart and your soul feel right, you have to do it. It’s not a question and not up for debate. You have to organize your life in such a way that you can make music and take it seriously. But sadly, you really can’t count on being able to make enough money to survive and support a family doing that, and one day you’ll likely want those things. So I think the best thing young artists can do is to take their art seriously, but also understand that they can be serious artists *with* day jobs. Having a job doesn’t make you any less of an artist.

So I’d say, get some other skill you can use to earn a living, preferably a career where you’re not trading your time for money (ie; working an hourly wage or service job), and you’re not miserable, either. And always, for the rest of your life, plan on making music. Make it important. Make time for it. Nurture your talent and your skill. Take yourself seriously but don’t expect to be able to pay your bills from it, and then plan accordingly.

Dabney: What phrases from the 90s are you sad that have gone out of common parlance?

Mercy: Wait, they have? Balls.

Dabney: So, is there a video that shows you how to unbutton jeans with your teeth? Because after reading your book, it feels like something that would be good to know.

Mercy: I may never forgive you for that Google search, Dabney. I never did find a decent video of it, so I tried doing this myself and failed pretty stunningly. However, Mr. Brown gave it a shot and was successful. I’ll talk him into taking a video next time.

Dabney: If there’s a moral of Loud is How I Love You it’s trust yourself to dream big, really big. Did I get that right?

Mercy: Definitely. And I’d also add that it’s about being exactly who you are, even when you’re broken and flawed to the teeth, and learning that you’re still loveable. If you’re putting your whole heart into whatever matters most to you, into what makes you YOU, the right kind of people will love you for it. For Emmy, that’s Travis. It’s also Millie and Cole and Joey and Sonia—all the people who see Emmy’s faults and stick by her no matter what. Emmy doesn’t get the awesome guy because she’s perfect. She gets the awesome guy because he’s the right guy for her, and she’s the right girl for him. I believe in that stuff.

Thank you so much for having me!

Dabney: Thanks for talking to me. I love the book!

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The Best of 2015: Caz’s List

I both love and hate these sorts of round-ups.  On the one hand, I like to look back over my reading year and see what I’ve enjoyed (and try to forget what I didn’t!) but on the other, narrowing it down to a “best of” can be difficult if one has had a good reading year, something I count myself fortunate to have had in 2015.

Looking back through my reviews of books published, I’ve given one A+ (my only one in the almost three years I’ve been reviewing for AAR), which went to K.J Charles’ A Seditious Affair, which is also my top pick of the year.  I’ve given 5 A grades and 13 A- grades, so my choices have come from that group and also include a couple of titles I haven’t reviewed here.  In no particular order, then, my other nine choices are:

Lorraine Heath’s Falling into Bed With a Duke.  I’ve not read a huge number of Ms Heath’s books (yet), but she never fails to impress me with the way she zeroes in on the emotional hearts of her characters and their stories.  This particular story, of a young woman who was so fed up with men seeking to marry her for her money that she was prepared to live without marriage, but not passion, was incredibly well written, and the chemistry between the sexy, but troubled hero and the forthright heroine was scorching.
Deadly Peril by Lucinda Brant.  This author’s books have been my major discovery of the last couple of years, not least since she started putting them out in audio format using the splendid Alex Wyndham as her narrator.  But this is a print book, the most recent in her Georgian mystery series featuring the handsome, fiercely intelligent and urbane former diplomat Alec Halsey.  The attractions of this book are many;  not only is Halsey a delicious hero, Ms Brant weaves a gripping, complex story and sets it in a fictional place that feels so real I was tempted to look it up on the map!  This book – and its two predecessors – are a must for anyone who enjoys historical mysteries with a strong helping of romance on the side.

Another for fans of the same is Deanna Raybourn’s  A Curious Beginning, the first in her new series of Victorian set mysteries featuring the outspoken and independent Veronica Speedwell.  The book was a delight from start to finish, with Veronica and Stoker striking sparks off each other from the start and continue their often sexually-charged banter throughout the book. The mystery is well constructed and set up the series well, leaving me both satisfied at the end and wanting more!

Stella Riley is one of my all-time favourite writers of historical fiction and historical romance, and her books regularly make my “best of” lists – they’re THAT good.  The Player  is the third in a series of romances set in Georgian England and tells the story of a man who fled the country when he was wrongly accused of causing the death of his fiancée and who has spent so long playing a part that he has forgotten who he really is.  His return to England is necessitated when he inherits a title he never wanted, and the story tells how he, with the help of the right woman, of course, re-discovers himself and finds love.  Ms Riley has a talent for creating the most swoonworthy heroes, and Adrian Devereux is no exception.  I’m really excited at the prospect of this series coming to audio next year.

I’m not much of a reader of Young Adult books, but Sherry Thomas is a favourite author regardless of what she writes, so I wasn’t going to let her Elemental Trilogy pass me by. The Immortal Heights is a splendid finale, bringing together all the fantastical plot elements to a triumphant finish and providing a satisfying conclusion to the romance between Prince Titus and Iolanthe Seabourne, whose relationship starts in wariness and distrust  (in The Burning Sky) and turns into the sort of true, everlasting love that is aspired to in most romances.  Here, however, I believed it.  These two may have been young, but the strength of the attachment between them is palpable, their love for one another never in doubt.

Eva Leigh’s Forever Your Earl was another favourite, the first in a new series from this author (who also writes as Zoe Archer).  Having read some of her other books, I had high expectations for a strong heroine, drop-dead sexy hero, witty, sexually charged banter and scorching chemistry between the protagonists  – and Ms Leigh delivered on all counts.  Some aspects of this story about a female newssheet editor who gets to accompany a rakish earl on some of his more disreputable excursions are a bit far-fetched, it’s true, but the author more than makes up for that with the aforementioned chemistry and banter, and also makes a number of very sharp observations on the role of women in society at the time.

Elizabeth Hoyt’s Dearest Rogue (the eighth book in her Maiden Lane series) was one of the books I was most eagerly anticipating in 2015, and while it had a few weaknesses, it lived up to my expectations.  There’s something about the pairing of the young, vivacious, but blind Lady Phoebe Batten with the older, dour ex-soldier James Trevillion that pushed all the right buttons.  Perhaps it’s because I had come to know both characters over the course of several books, becoming acquainted with Trevillion’s courage and sense of honour and with Phoebe’s strength of character and determination not to let her disability define her that made their romance that much more touching; whatever it is, theirs is one of my favourite pairings of the whole series.

I loved Laura Andersen’s Boleyn Trilogy, which was set in an alternative Tudor timeline and which concluded last year.  Ms Andersen has now embarked upon another series, this time set in the reign of Elizabeth, and in which she has a daughter by her husband, Philip of Spain.  I never thought I’d be engrossed by such a concept, but the author does a terrific job of weaving her own story in amongst actual historical events, so that sometimes, it’s necessary to kick back and think about what really happened and what didn’t!  The heroine of The Virgin’s Daughter is Lucette, daughter of Dominic and Minuette from the previous series, and the story grabbed me from the first.  Anyone looking for something a bit different in an historical could do a lot worse than give Laura Andersen a try.

I can’t write a “best of” without mentioning Grace Burrowes, who is a favourite author of mine.  I’ve read a number of her books this year, but I think the best of them is The Duke’s Disaster, which features what is probably my favourite trope of them all, the marriage of convenience.  What the author does so well in her own inimitable style, is to paint a realistic portrait of the situation faced by two people who marry for the sake of expediency and then realise that they will have to work at it if they’re going to have any chance of making a go of things.  Most impressively, Ms Burrowes takes an old, well-used trope and finds something new to say about it.

For anyone who is interested among my “almost made its” are Theresa Romain’s Secrets  of a Scandalous Heiress, Julie Anne Long’s It Started With a Scandal and Meredith Duran’s Luck Be a Lady.

 

Posted in Best of 2015, Best of List, Caz AAR | Tagged , | 15 Comments

Labyrinth: A David Bowie Tribute by Carrie Lofty

With David Bowie’s passing, I noticed on Facebook that many of my female contemporaries mourned the loss of The Goblin King. Bowie reinvented himself dozens of times, from Ziggy Stardust to The Thin White Duke to Blue Jean, through his years with Tin Machine, into the 90s with albums such as Outside and Earthling that continued to push boundaries, before finishing his amazing life with Blackstar, released just last Friday.

So why The Goblin King? Why a single character from among his entire pantheon, born of a film with dancing Jim Henson creations?

My answer is this: sexual awakening. The following is a post I wrote in 2009 after watching Labyrinth for the first time in at least a decade.


This isn’t a full review—more like observations on a very subversive film, and how my daughters [note: then ages seven and six] reacted to seeing it for the first time.

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I probably saw Labyrinth at age 11, because we didn’t go to the theater but we had HBO. I remember seeing it repeatedly. Eleven years old is an interesting age for a girl. I love this pic from “The Simpsons” where Lisa is reading Non-Threatening Boys magazine. (The Coreys prove how long the show has been on!)

But it’s true: pre-pubescent girls tend to dig guys who are a little androgynous, a little pretty-faced. They’re not as scary as grown men, especially when the most prominent examples of full-fledged masculinity in their daily lives are authority figures such as fathers and teachers. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s probably a defense mechanism against under-developed girls desiring what they should avoid, namely adult dudes with active sperm.

Eighties rockers like Bon Jovi probably helped many a girl bridge that gap. He had the moves and aggression of a man, but he also wore make-up and had hair bigger than gals in Texas. Robert Pattinson and the Twilight phenom might have served the same purpose. One day, the girls who love/loved him will look back on their crushes, scratch their heads, and wonder what the hell they’d been smoking—even though part of them will still enjoy that remembered fondness.

No wonder, then, that David Bowie in Labyrinth confused me in the pants.
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He was 38 when he filmed this movie, compared to Jennifer Connelly’s tender-yet-stacked 15 years. A man in every sense, particularly in the region of his tightly-fitting breeches, he commanded his scenes with a wicked intensity. Although silly goblins and cringe-worthy tunes occasionally blunted his potency, his androgynous lace, hair, and make-up kept him from coming across as a frightening masculine figure. Instead he was intriguing, intoxicating, and focused in a way no 11-yo could articulate, but was never a turn off like, ew, he could be my dad. thin-white-duke-david-bowie

But wasn’t that always his appeal? Bowie lingered between overtly masculine (his performances, his posturing) and accessibly feminine (his soft-spoken voice, his thin, graceful build). I’m going to hazard a guess that many a girl in Britain has experienced the same thing with David Tennant and Matt Smith’s portrayals of The Doctor.

That’s where Labyrinth is subversive. Ostensibly, it’s about a girl coming to terms with growing up, assuming responsibility, and making sure the fantasies of youth are kept in perspective. On a deeper level, it’s also about Sarah accepting the loss of her mother, although the nature of their separation is never discussed. Sarah keeps a collection of newspaper clippings about her actress mother, suggesting that she either died or left to seek movie fame. The crux, either way, is abandonment grief. Many of the themes played out with her imaginary friends in the labyrinth have to do with loyalty, friendship, sticking together—overcoming obstacles through trust, and accepting the inherent unfairness of life.

JC

Even deeper, Labyrinth is the narrative of a girl’s cautious approach toward womanhood. Her retreat into childhood fantasy suggests a fear of the real: men, sex, and the burdens that come with grown-up trials. She’s also competing with her step-mother for the attention of her father, which means she’s in need of male companionship, possibly a substitute Daddy. Even Jennifer Connelly’s figure, which is very womanly yet camouflaged by loose-fitting clothes, contrasts with her dew-eyed expressions and breathy voice. She’s on the edge of becoming aware of herself as a woman.

Consider the Goblin King’s final attempt to coerce/seduce Sarah:

Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn’t that generous? I ask so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.

It’s a psychological field day! It’s the most insane, seductive stalker-lover proclamation of all time! He is the voice of her dreams. If she refuses responsibility and continues to live in a dream world, she could be happily numb—contentedly owned by a magnetic older man who can take away all her cares. Part of her wants an androgynous rock star goblin boyfriend who will do any and all things for her, yet she understands, intuitively, that to give herself to him is not possible. It would conflate the last crutches of girlish fantasy with the first stirrings of womanly need. His words are an articulation of sexual desire, while reflecting her idealization of romantic passion.

Sarah rejects the Goblin King and accepts responsibility for her little brother. Her rejection is a means of re-ordering her expectations and returning to the realm of a teenager, unwilling to become a woman just yet. Her previous refusal to stay trapped with him at the masked ball—the only time they touch, the only time she’s dressed as a complete-with-cleavage woman—affirms this.

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In the end, Sarah returns to the real world, accepts her brother with a symbolic teddy bear hand-over, and finds an outlet for her imagination by dancing in her room with the various Muppet friends. She puts away several items: the doll in the ball gown from her fantasy dance, the book of Labyrinth, and pictures of her mother. She’s ready to end some childhood fixations. Interestingly, although the owl version of the Goblin King flies away, she leaves an owl figurine on her dresser. That decision—sexuality—is still up in the air.

I got a kick out of all the subtext, while the girls were alternately thrilled and scared by the whole ordeal. Overall they found the filmmaker’s “let’s disguise the subversive stuff” with pratfalls and puppetry very entertaining. I’ll have to see how they react to it in four or five years, but by then, they’ll have their own David Bowie figure to cause pre-teen confusion.


 

As comedian Simon Pegg tweeted this morning:

If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.

Rest well, our Goblin King.


 

Carrie Lofty is the author of historical romances such as Starlight and His Very Own Girl, and the young adult romance, Blue Notes. She co-writes award-winning erotic romance as Katie Porter, and penned the RITA-nominated paranormal romance, Caged Warrior, under the pseudonym Lindsey Piper. Her latest is Hunted Warrior, the third and final installment of her “Dragon Kings” series. With a Masters in history, Carrie also enjoys choir singing and kickboxing. She lives and writes just north of Chicago.

 

Posted in Guest Posts, Movies | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

The Best of 2015: Ulysses’s List

Cold Fusion by Harper Fox

Northanger Abbey meets Skyfall?  If you don’t get the references, go look them up. Kier Mallory returns in deep disgrace to his isolated Scottish highland village, having caused the death of two people on the North Sea. He is pulled out of his despair by the odd, reclusive young scientific genius Vivian Calder, disinherited heir of the local lord. No one writes more beautifully in the entire romance world than Harper Fox.

Carry The Ocean by Heidi Cullinan

The greatest strength in Cullinan’s book is its two voices, the alternating narrators: Emmet Washington, a nineteen-year-old college sophomore with autism, and Jeremey Samson, a recent high-school graduate with severe depression and anxiety disorder. Emmet has a family who gets him and has helped him achieve a lot of his potential. Jeremey, not so much. That these two young men should find friendship and love together seems an impossibly wishful fairy tale, and yet Cullinan lays out their story in such a way as to make it fully believable and even inevitable.

The Butterfly King by Edmond Manning

Book Three of the Lost and Found Kings series drags us—some reluctantly, some avidly—once more into the strange inner world of Vin Vanbly, the pseudonymous anti-hero who unleashes the inner power of lost kings. If that paragraph didn’t mean anything to you, you might not like this book. For those of us who have fallen in love with Vin Vanbly, The Butterfly King was a revelation. Edmond Manning has created an emotionally exhausting tumble down a rabbit hole into the unseen worlds of ordinary lives. These worlds exist in both the physical and psychological interstices about which we all remain largely ignorant as we go about our ordinary business.

A Flight of Magpies by KJ Charles

In Flight of Magpies KJ Charles offers us the third, and most exciting, of the Charm of Magpies series set in a parallel Victorian England. Lord Crane is a tattooed adventurer, and Stephen Day is a magic practitioner who struggles to keep the world safe. The setting, the characters, both primary and supporting, the action, and even the sex; all work together to provide a page-turning adventure that will have you begging for more at the end. Something about the language, the dialogue, in this volume is especially riveting. Both Lord Crane and Stephen Day speak with such acuity and power. Each of them has great moments of soliloquy that give us insight into their true strength and character.

Guardians of the Haunted Moor by Harper Fox

Harper Fox’s Tyack and Frayne series is different from her stand-alone books. Yes, there’s the same gorgeous, polished writing, but you’re less aware of it in this series. What really drives these books is the people who populate them.  Front and center are Lee Tyack and Gideon Frayne—the clairvoyant and the cop. Fox manages to make Lee’s unearthly psychic gifts seem like any other highly-developed talent, and his intensely nurturing, loving personality is more important than his other aspects. Gideon, big strong gentle Cornish policeman, is possibly one of my favorite characters ever.

Third Solstice by Harper Fox

I understand totally that I am biased. I am surely one of Harper Fox’s number one fans. But, with that grain of salt in mind, here are my thoughts on her latest installment of the continuing saga of Locryn Tayack and Gideon Frayne, clairvoyant and copper in the Cornish village of Dark. Here we find the Solstice approaching, and with it Tamsyn Tyack-Frayne’s first birthday. If the trauma around Tamsie’s adoption has settled down, the lingering pain and fear have not entirely dissipated. But normality, insofar as it is possible in a two-dad household where both fathers seem to have some sort of paranormal connection to each other and the spirit world in general, has returned. Then Tamsyn surprises her dads with a little unanticipated skill set and knocks their world off its axis once again.

Prosperity by Alexis Hall

Alexis Hall’s gorgeously written picaresque steampunk novel has as its warm heart the Dodger-like guttersnipe Piccadilly, known as Dil to his friends. Friends are few and far between until this maybe-eighteen-year-old arrives in the airborne mining town of Prosperity to see what he can find. There Dil encounters a group of characters as unforgettable as any penned by Charles Dickens, thanks to the brilliant verbal paintbrush of the author.

Champion of the Scarlet Wolf (two volumes) by Ginn Hale

In the world of contemporary epic fantasy, Ginn Hale is, in my opinion, a master. Not only does she write with an elegance and a passion that sucks the reader into the intense, complicated plots, but she creates worlds of startling beauty and characters of great power and compassion—and humor. Frankly, Hale’s a better writer than Tolkien. (There, I said it.) In these two books, to be read together, we see unfold a Byzantine plot of witchcraft, actors, prostitutes, soldiers, battles, mythical creatures, and ancient history. Alongside it unfolds a powerful love story, as the self-loathing Elezar, who has hidden his desire for men in violence and revenge, becomes the champion of the rag-tag street witch Skellan. Elezar believes himself to be bestial and able to express himself only through violence. Skellan feels unworthy and inadequate, hiding behind his magic for self-preservation. But both men are far more than they seem, and through these two volumes they gradually learn each other’s dark histories, and emerge as, well, the Sam and Frodo in Tolkien’s epic. Only bigger and a lot gayer.

The Gilded Scarab by Anna Butler

I can imagine that people who have no liking for Dickens or Trollope might find this novel tough sledding, because Butler meticulously creates a parallel world to ours in late Victorian London, and embellishes it with details that are historically accurate, even as she envelops her narrative in a savory steampunk fantasy that throws everything just a little bit off. The central character, through whose damaged eyes we see Butler’s fantasy world, is Rafe Lancaster, black sheep of a cadet branch of a minor house. Bereft of the aerofighter career that had made his name in the Queen’s army, Lancaster quietly returns to Londinium (indeed the original Roman name for that city) and tries to build a new life for himself.

How to be a Normal Person by TJ Klune

The first asexual gay romance I’ve ever read. Gustavo Tiberius is one of the cutest, most endearing socially dysfunctional people I’ve ever read; and Casey Richards is the most adorable, charming asexual hipster I’ve ever heard of.

 

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The Best of 2015: Audiobooks We Loved

Haley’s Top Listens in 2015

Why Not Me? By Mindy Kaling

I’m a fan of Mindy Kaling and have been since she was on The Office. While I didn’t like Why Not Me? As much as her first book, I did enjoy her playful narration and funny anecdotes. I, like many women, really relate to how down-to-earth Kaling seems and that comes through in this book, especially in the chapter about how much work and money goes into making Hollywood stars beautiful. This is a great, quick, lighthearted listen.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

Emily already wrote a wonderful, in depth review of this book, but I want to second it. I expected a comedic book, probably a memoir, from Aziz like all comedians seem to put out. Instead, I got a real look at the sociology of modern love. I was riveted to this book from the beginning and I think it taught me so much. I will admit, I was trying online dating when I listened to this and so a lot of the information pertained to my situation. I ended up following the statistics of successful online daters and, somehow, it worked out for me and my now boyfriend. I’m not saying this book will help you find love, nor does it aim to, but it provides a good look at the dating game. Even if you are not currently in the dating scene, Aziz’s humor peppered through the audio will be entertaining and informative. Plus, there’s something really meta and amusing to me about an audiobook narrator who mocks you for listening to the audio.

Fairest by Marissa Meyer

Although I love the Lunar Chronicles, I was on the fence about whether to read this novella. I decided I could listen to it while I drove, so it wouldn’t waste my time. I’m happy I did because I ended up really enjoying the backstory of Queen Levana. Rebecca Soler does a fantastic job with the narration and Meyer’s writing is stunning, as usual.

 

Blood Red Road by Moira Young

This was not a 2015 release, but I did listen to it the first time this year. I had heard complaints from a friend that the written text was unpleasant to read, because it is written an odd dialect, akin to a very heavy southern accent. The audio version, however, was great. Saba lives in sort of sci-fi version of post-apocalyptic America. Her brother is kidnapped and she, along with her young sister, have to travel across the wasteland to find him. Young’s story is very original and will keep your attention, and the audiobook narration of Saba’s dialect added to the atmosphere of the story.


 Caz’s Top Listens in 2015

I’ve listened to a number of excellent audiobooks this year, which makes it quite difficult to pick just a few as my favourites of the year.  In fact, I’m going to cheat a bit, because one of my choices is in fact (almost) the entire output by one particular author/narrator team who are so, SO good, that it’s impossible to pick just one audiobook by them as a standout. 

I’ve already  chosen Lucinda Brant’s most recent book, Deadly Peril as one of my top ten books of the year, and now I’m nominating the audiobook versions of the earlier books, Deadly Engagement and Deadly Affair, and the audiobooks of entire (so far) Roxton Family Saga (Noble Satyr, Midnight Marriage, Autumn Duchess and Dair Devil) as audio favourites of 2015.  The stories are incredibly well crafted and it’s clear that the author has a real love for the period she is writing about (the latter half of the eighteenth century) – her depictions of the fashion and customs of the day are superb and so well-integrated into her stories that it would be easy to believe she had simply conjured them from her imagination rather than putting a lot of painstaking research into the smallest detail.  In terms of the audiobooks, however, Ms Brant struck gold when she engaged British actor Alex Wyndham to be her narrator, as he is, quite simply, one of the best I have ever heard.  He has an incredible range of character voices, of expression and of emotional nuance, and listening to him is an absolute joy. It’s true that he has the most gorgeous voice, but he also has the artistry, technical ability and emotional intelligence to go with it – I’m gushing, I know, but he really is THAT good, and is the perfect match for Ms Brant’s beautifully written and plotted stories.

Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series is easily one of the best historical romance series, and I am in awe of the author’s ability to continue to create such wonderful characters and compelling stories.  Only a Kiss is the sixth book, and tells the story of the only female member of the club, Lady Imogen Barclay, who witnessed her husband’s torture and death at the hands of the enemy in Portugal.  It’s a slow moving story, but no less enjoyable for that, as it enables the listener to become thoroughly acquainted with the characters and for the author to fully develop the central romance.  It’s also no hardship to listen to the beautiful tones of the wonderful Rosalyn Landor, who has narrated all the books in this series (except the first one for some reason).  She is one of my favourite narrators, and has a real affinity for this sort of material, always managing to get to the heart of the characters and the story, and imbuing both with genuine emotion and nuance.

I was really gripped by Tracy Anne Warren’s The Bedding Proposal, which took a divorced woman as one of its protagonists, something very rarely found in historical romance given that divorces were incredibly difficult to obtain.  The story starts on a fairly light note, with young and handsome Lord Leo Byron spying the lovely – and older – Lady Thalia Lennox at a party and deciding to make her his next conquest. But what starts out as a flirtation and, on Thalia’s side, unwanted attention, gradually becomes something else as the couple falls deeply in love.  The story is intense and quite dark in places, and Ms Warren does a terrific job of showing the harsh truth of Thalia’s situation as a social outcast through no fault of her own.  The narration by Barrie Kreinik is excellent; I hadn’t listened to her before, but her very “1940s BBC” enunciation works really well for the principal characters, and she injects the right amount of humour and sensuality into the interactions between the protagonists, accurately reflecting the strong chemistry between them.  I haven’t had a chance to listen to her again yet, but I certainly intend to do so.

Romance audio fans have once again been treated to some wonderful audiobooks from another favourite author/narrator team, that of Loretta Chase and Kate Reading.  Of the handful of releases this year, my favourite is The Last Hellion,but Miss Wonderful, Mr Impossible and Lord Perfect are very close runners up, and each of them is an utter delight.  Kate Reading really “gets” Ms Chase’s humour and has a wonderful way with the deadpan turn of phrase which is one of her trademarks.  The Last Hellion features two strongly drawn, quick-witted and well-matched protagonists in Ainswood and Lydia, both of whom have suffered terrible losses and who hide the truth of themselves behind created facades, he of the devil-may-care rake, she of the imperturbable harridan. Ms Chase charts the development of their unwilling attraction brilliantly, showing – never just telling – the listener that these two people really need each other in order to become the people they are destined to be.  And Kate Reading is with her every step of the way, delivering a superbly characterised and emotionally resonant performance.


Melanie’s Top Listens in 2015

I’ve been listening to so many audiobooks recently, and absolutely loved William Shakespeare’s A New Hope, along with the sequels, The Empire Stricketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return. The adaptations are by Ian Doescher, and have the feel of a classic Shakespeare play combined with the familiar story, characters, and setting of Star Wars. As a bit of a fangirl, I highly recommend them.
I really enjoyed Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy and Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), both read by their respective authors. What both of these books, and these women, have in common is that they are utterly open about the mental issues they’ve faced over the years, how they’ve overcome, and how they continue to fight. While Day’s book is probably more geared to those of us who have lived on the fringes of the internet (specifically the gaming and fandom fringes, though others are certainly applicable), both are entertaining, and it is wonderful to hear them in the author’s voices.

Also on my list of great audiobooks is The Martian by Andy Weir. Astronaut Mark Watney is accidently left behind on a manned mission to Mars when his crew thinks he is dead. He must survive, alone, on a planet that basically wants to kill him, for over a year if he is to make it back to Earth. If it sounds familiar, that’s because the movie came out this past year, and does a surprisingly good job of capturing what I see as the two themes of the story: “The human spirit endures” and “Let’s science the shit out this.” The narrator does a fantastic job of combining the fairly heavy but still approachable science with the almost joker attitude of Watney as he goes from “I’m fucked” (pg1) to “How do I fix this problem so I can live another day?” (pg2 to the end).

And finally, for a little romance, I have been listening (and re-listening and re-listening) to Richard Armitage read Classic Love Poems, which I got as a Valentine’s Day freebie from Audible. I think it’s something like $5 or $7 now, but totally worth it for the 30 minutes of Armitage read wonderful poems like Poe’s Annabelle Lee and “The Passionate Shepard to his Love” by Christopher Marlowe. After all, I can’t be the only one who wants to hear Richard Armitage say “Come live with me, and be my love.


Shannon’s Top Listens in 2015

Lord Perfect by Loretta Chase

Nothing equals good listening like Loretta Chase plus Kate Reading. Ms. Chase writes wonderful historical romances and Ms. Reading brings them to life. I loved the chemistry between the leads, and the supporting characters were wonderful too. Lord Perfect has long been one of my favorite Chase books in print, but the audiobook is even better.

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

This is a wonderful family drama. The narrator did a wonderful job voicing each of the characters. The book dealt with a serious subject in a sensitive and realistic manner. I highly recommend this.

Menagerie by Rachel Vincent


Menagerie is the first book in a new series by Rachel Vincent. The world building is wonderfully unique. The plot is spell-binding. I cheered Delilah, our heroine, on from the very beginning. Gabra Zackman is a very skilled narrator, who added an extra element of excellence to an already outstanding story.


Dabney’s Top Listens in 2015

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

As I listened to Eleanor and Park, I raved about it. And everyone I mentioned it to said, “Yes, it’s incredible. Hadn’t you read it?” No, I hadn’t and yes, it’s incredible. As Jenna said in her DIK review at AAR,

This book will haunt you. It will make you hurt and it will make you smile, and you’ll be thinking about these characters long after their story has finished. In my opinion, that’s the mark of a book well worth reading, and I can’t recommend Eleanor and Park highly enough.

The alternating narration by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra is superb. Both make the teens they voice palpably real and heart-breakingly vulnerable.  If you’ve read the book, but not heard the audio, give it a whirl and have your world moved yet again. And, if like me, you haven’t read the book, for frack’s sake, buy this audiobook. I can’t think of a better way to apprehend the glory that is Rainbow and Park

 11/22/63  by Stephen King

I’d been meaning to read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 since Blythe’s DIK review of it. But then my youngest son mistakenly signed up for a binding Audible subscription and, suddenly, I had to buy six audiobooks. I hadn’t read any King in years but, after reading the thousands of positive reviews about this one I decided I’d give it a try. Craig Wasson‘s narration is almost 31 hours long and every hour was a joy. This novel is, at its heart, a love story and Mr. Wasson makes the emotions of Jake and Sadie powerful and strong. It’s a complicated tale with many important supporting characters and each one is rendered audibly unique. I’ve since then read the book. While I enjoyed both versions, the audiobook is the one I loved best.

What Alice Forgot by Lianne Moriarty

Lianne Moriarty is one of Australia’s most successful writers–I’m always surprised more Americans haven’t read her. I had listened to The Husband’s Secret and liked it so I decided to buy What Alice Forgot. This novel has three narrators (Alice and her sister Elisabeth and their great-aunt Frannie) and Tamara Lovatt-Smith is wonderful at voicing the three. The premise of this story–Alice wakes up after banging her head at the gym and discovers she’s forgotten the last ten years of her life–is one I liked and Ms. Moriarty gives the joys and pains of the three women’s lives a gravitas rarely found outside women’s fiction.


LinnieGayl’s Top Listens in 2015

Prudence by Gail Carriger narrated by Moira Quirk

I’m a huge fan of Gail Carriger’s steampunk novels and was sad when her Parasol Protectorate series ended in 2012 with Timeless. After following the characters through five books I felt a sense of loss. Well no longer!  Prudence picks up several decades after the Parasol Protectorate series ended and stars Alexia Maccon’s daughter Prudence – or Rue as her friends know her.

It took just minutes to realize that Moira Quirk is the perfect narrator for this book. She brings the right sense of humor and tone every character. Yes, indeed, some are rather over the top – Lord Akeldama most notably – but that’s exactly how Ms. Carriger writes the characters. This first in a new series by the author introduces us both to some new characters, and continues with some earlier characters both from the Parasol Protectorate and her Finishing School series.

While I think this could work without having read the Soulless series, I can’t imagine doing so. One would miss out on so much of the history of the characters. As for me, I can’t wait for the next installment, and will definitely listen to it in audio.

The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig narrated by Kate Reading.

I approached this final book in Ms. Willig’s Pink Carnation series with mixed feelings. While I’ve been waiting for Jane’s story (the actual Pink Carnation) for years, I also didn’t want the series to end. And I’ll admit I worried whether Jane would get a fitting ending, and a fitting hero. I should have known better. In Jack we get a hero truly worthy of Jane. Jane has always been a bit of an enigma in the previous series entries.

Here, we get to know what Jane was really thinking, and how truly alone she has been at times. As always, Ms. Reading provides a wonderful narration for the book, deftly switching back and forth not only between characters of different genders, but between the characters in the historical romance (Jane and Jack) and the contemporary romance (Eloise and Colin). If you’ve enjoyed the Pink Carnation series in print, take a chance on the audio version; you won’t regret it.

Manners & Mutiny by Gail Carriger narrated by Moira Quirk

This is the fourth and final entry in Ms. Carriger’s young adult Finishing School. It takes place in the same world as the author’s other steampunk series, but for the most part this occurs prior to the Parasol Protectorate. The series has featured the adventures of Sophronia and her friends at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s finishing school.

But this isn’t the type of finishing school you might imagine. Instead, the young women who attend the school – set in a floating dirigible – are taught all of the skills they’ll need to be intelligencers (spies, assassins, etc.). Over the four books the characters experience a lot of change. In this final, fantastic entry, we learn that many of the key characters weren’t exactly what we thought they were. And while I would have said that the first entry was not a romance, in the finale Sophronia most definitely gets a HEA, albeit a rather unconventional one. Moira Quirk has done a fantastic job narrating the entire series, bringing exactly the humor called for by the author. Frankly, I cannot imagine reading this series in any format other than audible; Ms. Quirk is just that perfect.

 

Posted in AAR Shannon, audio books, Best of 2015, Best of List, Caz AAR, Dabney AAR, Haley AAR, LinnieGayl AAR, Melanie AAR | Tagged , | 1 Comment